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Sappi prepares to transform

The future looks rosy for Sappi's Cloquet mill, which is nearing the end of a $170 million conversion from producing paper pulp to producing chemical cellulose, a move which should insure the viability of the plant for decades to come. Photo by Cassandra Parker

Cloquet's Sappi pulp mill is shutting down production this week, and getting out of the paper pulp business.

The mill, which has been around for 115 years, is moving from producing pulp that's made into paper to making a new kind of pulp that will be made into textiles and then into clothing, baby wipes and bandages.

It is the first such mill in Minnesota and Sappi's first of its kind in North America.

At a price tag of $170 million for the conversion, it's the largest investment Sappi has made in North America in some time, Project Director Mike Schultz told the Cloquet City Council a year ago, and the largest investment at the mill itself since the $500 million former Potlatch mill expansion here in the 1990s. Schultz was also heavily involved in that project.

The pulp mill built in the '90s is part of the reason Sappi chose to invest in Cloquet.

"Out of all the kraft pulp mills in the U.S., the Cloquet pulp mill is one of the newest," a Sappi spokesperson explained in a previous Pine Journal interview. "Its state-of-the-art design and competitive low cost structure makes this mill unique. Its design is one which lends itself to being converted to chemical cellulose."

Construction on the Sappi Fine Paper project started one year ago and the company hopes to have the mill fully converted and shipping chemical cellulose, also called dissolved pulp, to textile mills in China, Indonesia and India by late May.

Rick Dwyer, managing director of the Cloquet mill, said the entire pulp mill will shut down for April as the final touches of the retooling are finished. The company will make test runs of new equipment on the old paper pulp in May, with the final conversion to the new pulp expected by late May.

The new, purer form of cellulose fiber from the mill will be further processed into "viscose staple fiber" to make textiles like rayon, but which also can be made into cosmetics, pharmaceutical binders, diapers, cigarette filters, bandages, ingredients for ice cream and yogurt, and the screens on cell phones and computers.

The move by Sappi, first reported in 2011, is part of a global strategy to diversify from lower-profit paper pulp into the higher-profit pulp used to make textiles.

South Africa-based Sappi will continue to make paper in Cloquet, but once the pulp mill is converted to chemical cellulose pulp, the paper plant in Cloquet will have to buy its pulp from someone else. And the mill won't be selling pulp for papermaking to other paper manufacturers.

The mill change won't add much to the 720 employees at the mill, but it's expected to add decades to the mill's viability as the community's largest economic driver.

State Representative Mike Sundin said the construction project at the mill has been a boon to local construction trades.

Pine Journal Publisher Wendy Johnson contributed to this article.