Wisconsin's paper industry has faced many challenges as mills close and people switch to digital. But there is one sector of the paper industry that is growing: specialty paper.
"Specialty paper goes across a broad gamut of things," says Steve Ottone, technical service manager at Omya — a chemical industry company headquartered in Switzerland. "Think about the ways that paper touches your life. Say you have your morning cup of tea. In that tea bag what actually holds the tea?"
Specialty paper encompasses a variety of grades of paper. Everything from masking tape to the paper candies are wrapped in. Specialty papers are designed for a specific purpose and is utilized in different industries like automotive and aerospace.
For an industry that’s seeking to reinvent itself, specialty paper holds a lot of potential, especially for a state like Wisconsin.
"Wisconsin is really, really strong in specialty papers. There’s literally thousands of different grades of specialty papers that are manufactured in Wisconsin," says Paul Fowler. He's the executive director of the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology at UW Stevens Point.
He’s says there’s something that makes the paper business particularly unique in southeastern Wisconsin. That something is converters.
"Converters are those small and medium sized companies that take the outputs of the mills and convert them into useful products. There is a significant presence in southeastern Wisconsin," says Fowler.
Despite the dismal state of affairs for paper over the past decade, Fowler is optimistic for the industry. Last year, the direct output in Milwaukee County alone was around $760 million and employed over 1,500 people.
"There’s global megatrends occurring that gives a sense of optimism," he says.
Fowler cites growing trends in ecommerce, and the anti-plastic sentiment that has taken over headlines recently. Which brings us back to the Specialty Papers Conference in Milwaukee this week. The theme of the conference is the sustainable future of specialty papers. Ottone, who is on the board for the conference, says that sustainability is key.
"What we're trying to do is really talk about how we might change the way the paper industry might look as we move to the future because there's a great future for paper there is no question," says Ottone.
The Specialty Papers Conference will be wrapping up on Wednesday, Oct. 2.