Letter from Route 12 and the Pacific Northwest: from waste streams, a bioeconomy rising

June 26, 2019 |

In Washington state, there’s a new mill near the city of Dayton that is the first to use waste straw to make pulp for paper products, and biopolymers; and, a new project near Granger turning dairy waste into pipeline-quality renewable natural gas; also, a proposed project for Cosmopolis using sulfite pulp waste liquor to make a high-value packaging composite. It’s a tale of three cities, and hope reborn along US Route 12.

A broad up-rising

A trip along the length of Route 12 is like a trip through the American bioeconomy. Starting from the car-centric streets of Detroit, the highway heads west across the corn-laden prairie, into the dairy and lake-lands of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the cattle country of the Dakotas borderline. Then, the mineral-rich Montana Rockies, across the wheat country of the Inland Empire, and the timber counties of south western Washington state, until you dead-end at the Pacific at Grays Harbor with its vast refining and terminal facilities, where the Renewable Energy Group rules its western roost and where fishing, seafood processing and the timber milling industry have been the Mighty Long Time Mightys. Dayton, Granger and Cosmopolis are stops along this horn of plenty.

The landscapes change along Route 12, and the politics. In the working-class, union strongholds around Grays Harbor they’ve been staunch Democrats since Roosevelt, though the county went for Trump in 2016; a hundred miles east in the farming communities of Granger and Dayton, they probably haven’t gone Democratic since William Jennings Bryan walked the earth.

But the story is remarkably the same. From the western ports to the eastern farming communities, hope is rising, and jobs are being re-born.

Rising in Columbia County

Columbia Pulp is North America’s first tree-free market pulp mill, using wheat farmers’ waste straw to create pulp for paper products as well as bio-polymers for a variety of industrial uses. After the conclusion of a successful pilot in the town of Pomeroy, a 400 ton per day plant is now complete and in commissioning just north of the town of Dayton.

Eastern Washington is famous for its heavy wheat yields, and the amount of waste straw that is generated creates problems for pest and soil management if left on the ground. Not to mention that global wheat prices have been depressed, and the move towards reduced gluten in the diet isn’t helping. The farmers could use an income lift.

So, here’s Columbia Pulp, to produce traditional pulp-based products such as newsprint printing papers, specialty papers, tissue, toweling and paperboard. But also a quartet of bio-polymers. CBP-Duration, a de-Icing Performance Enhancer; CBP-Harvest, a pesticide and Liquid Fertilizer Performance Enhancer; CBP-SurTac: for dust Control and Soil Stabilization; and CBP-Thrive, as an animal feed additive. The Spokesman_review exulted, “Like gold from straw: Columbia Pulp plants promise to turn wheat straw into marketable product, revitalize small towns.”

More about this remarkable project here.

Rising in Yakima County

The water off the Columbia River, the Okanogan, Snake, Yakima and the Wenatchee — from this water supply comes the fruit orchards and the vineyards here, and the grass for the dairy cows. With the strong dairy industry comes a whole big sloppy mess of dairy waste, and therein lies our tale.

As with wheat farmers, dairy owners are motivated — prices are depressed, right now around a ruinous 13 cents per hundredweight, and they’re under pressure to manage their waste streams better, too. And the California natural gas market is booming and the prices are strong and they all want renewable natural gas, the demand is strongest for RNG.

Along comes Promus Energy. They bring anaerobic digester technology, and waste stream capture, and a conditioning technology to convert low-value biogas to high quality renewable methane, and a connector to the pipeline system. There’s revenue back to the grower, all the profit now is in the gas, and they receive a solid residue fertilizer as a by-product. The general model is also being successfully applied at the Fair Oaks Dairy in Indiana, using RNG-fueled milk trucks in a three-state area.

As Promus explains:

The Promus Outlook Granger (POG) Project will convert organic waste from roughly 10,500 dairy cows into approximately 8,300 diesel gallon equivalents per day of pipeline quality renewable natural gas (RNG), bio-fertilizers, and fiber products. It also will create marketable environmental attributes (in particular, currently, carbon offset credits and RINs).

The RNG off-take model will differ from conventional digester projects in the U.S. in that rather than combusting the RNG to produce electricity for sale to an electric utility, the Project will (a) market the RNG directly to nearby transportation fleets and (b) inject the RNG into the interstate pipeline grid via a nearby major transmission pipeline for a potentially broad array of off-takers on the grid, including utilities and distant direct vehicle fleets. 

The viability of this off-take model has been established by the Project team’s execution of contracts from RNG purchasers.

Promus provides immediate expertise and resources for companies in the planning and implementation phases of commercial expansion and project development. The partners developed green field projects for companies such as Toyota, Weyerhaeuser, Sempra Energy, CMS Energy, ThyssenKrupp Budd, Igasamex, Metrogas, El Paso Energy, Enron, Northern Star Natural Gas, Cutuco Energy, Texas Utilities and others. The promise? In depth-knowledge of project finance and credit structures, and how the complete project development plan supports these structures.

It’s been a long road for Promus. There was a flurry of coverage of the companies’ projects in the Midwest and in Washington state back in the early to mid-2010s. The collapse of natural gas prices hurt. But the rise of the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard and renewable portfolio standards on the electron side, has revived their prospects. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down, says good old Psalm 37.

More on the technology here.

Aiming to rise in Grays Harbor County

Here’s one not yet quite on the radar for Cosmo Specialty Fibers, a privately-held company producing dissolving pulp at the former Weyerhaeuser Specialty Cellulose Mill in Cosmopolis, Washington. This is a sulfite process that produces red liquor, as opposed to the conventional pulping process that produces black liquor.

With the goal to build on the Weyerhaeuser legacy of producing a high-quality dissolving wood pulp, CSF resumed market-grade pulp production on May 1, 2011 and is completing acetate qualification. Since opening, CSF has reduced operating costs over 40% and executed a global sales strategy to ensure financial sustainability. The refinery team sees the potential of the biorefinery model. As they wrote in the mid-2010s:

Cosmo is well positioned to extract and sell cellulosic sugars and other bio-chemicals processed from the mill’s red liquor stream into an established commodity market. The C5/C6 sugars could be further processed into bio-chemicals in the fastest growing segment – the $1b. bio-plastics market with current CAGR of 19-22%. 

Processing cellulosic bio-chemicals would not be invasive to pulp mill operations or strategic grade direction. Ancillary benefits to the mill would be a net reduction in thermal energy demand, significantly less effluent to be treated along with potential maintenance and chemical cost savings.

The Cosmo website still notes: “Cosmo has completed lab bench testing, market analysis and initial processing costs. We are now proceeding to commercial-level pilot testing and are aiming at commercial sales in early 2015.”

So, that was then, this is now. In 2019, a team of student researchers at the University of Washington’s School of Forest Resources & Environment has identified a potential biocomposite production process they say could generate an additional $270 million in revenues for Cosmo. It’s nanocellulose reinforced HDPE from spent sulfite liquor. Here’s a poster the team presented recently at the annual Washington Pulp & Paper Foundation meeting in Seattle.

The Up Rising

The land along Route 12 is as familiar to me as my own front door; it’s my mother’s country, and my maternal grandparents are entered into rest here, I learned to sing the Easter Hymn in a Methodist Church here, and how to celebrate a wedding, as friends of the bride and groom, with a noisy and exultant demonstration that was called a chivaree.

Here, it was “worsh” instead of wash, “winda” instead of window, and you wear a “caysh-mere” sweater not a “cash-mere” one. Dinner at mid-day not the evening. You went to the “fillin’” station to fuel the truck; and you drove truck, you never drove a truck. The highways are routes that rhyme with clout, not with boot.  A sofa was a davenport, and what you might call a dresser we heard described as a “byeu-rah”, that’s how the old-timers said “bureau”. When you put the definite article in there and say “The Byeu-Rah”, that’s the Bureau of Reclamation.

In the cities, they talk about the Resistance, and fighting for justice, of a Climate War. How sad, how martial. Here along Route 12, let me tell you about the Up Rising, a re-birth, rising like salmon out of the river in spring, returned from the sea. Of the politics of the bioeconomy which are the politics of Up.

With all these bioeconomy projects, the people around here have become climate warriors, but don’t tell them. They don’t like that term. It sounds like city people lecturing country people — who’ve practiced conservation for 10,000 years — about how to manage resources. It sounds angry, and militaristic, it sounds like a way to divide the people instead of bring them together, how to solve a problem with an invasion.

They’ve watched for years as the environmentalists came down from the city, in cars that were made out of petroleum, wearing clothes made of petroleum, toting backpacks made from petroleum, wearing sunglasses made from petroleum, lubed up with skin protectants made from petroleum, navigating with devices made from petroleum, living in houses made from petroleum, cleansed and beautified by products made from petroleum, to tell folks in the country that they need to get off petroleum and why don’t they try some wind energy or an organic farm.

Around here, family farms had windmills generating power and electricity three generations ago. That’s how the people listened to the radio back in the days before rural electrification. Solar? My Aunt Mary credited her father with building the world’s first solar heated shower, from his own design and with his own hands, back in 1921. (It surely wasn’t the first, but still.)

So, climate warriors? No.

A Shift to Thrift

You could describe them as the kind of land owner “who throws three coins in the air and four come down”, and they’ll smile and they’ll like that. They’ll probably say in reply to you a proverb like “waste not, want not”— and mean it.  What you call “the circular economy” they call thrift, and they’ve been practicing it all their lives.

Extra income made from utilizing waste, that’s as sensible to them and as ancient as saving string. Now, these activities represent doing something positive and affordable with respect to climate change. But let’s consider that of secondary importance in how we talk about these opportunities. There’s the top-down, government mandate, no-matter-the-cost, right-thing-to-do approach to climate, and it’s pretty easy to explain to people who stand to benefit at someone else’s cost, or who might get paid to administrate the program.

But it is righteous misery to explain the virtues of the top-down approach to a hard-pressed taxpayer beset by healthcare costs gone mad, skyrocketing tuition, the onrush of an underfunded retirement and the cost of decent housing these days.

There’s the other road. It’s step-at-a-time, bottom-up, affordable, reliable, the one-project-then-another approach, which starts with a bunch of waste straw or manure and ends up with a useful product. It’s pretty easy to explain these actions to our neighbors and friends, even in Granger and Cosmopolis and Dayton.

Along the Great Divide

I try to understand the divide in our country when it comes to speaking about climate change. Some talk of Top Down, and some talk of Bottoms Up, and that seems to be why so many politely change the subject when it comes up.

One part of the country seems to want to block the highways, seize government, and rule by fiat in a desperate bid to get some climate action. The other part gets pretty steamed when the subject doesn’t go away. The former seek socialism as a path to solving our problems, the latter see a drift towards a new communism and a quick death for liberty and a slow death for economic liberalism.

We all know. In our hearts, that nature is changing and not for the better, seasons don’t arrive when they used to, storms are different now, the rain is shifting, it’s harder to find the fish, the snowpack’s thinning, the fires are terrible. We all see it and we all know it.

It frustrates us when the system doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. Here’s a car, the auto companies say, buy it. Here’s some affordable gasoline, the oil companies say, use it. Here’s some tasty food, says the fast food restaurant, eat it. Here’s some plastic packaging, wrap it. Here’s a home mortgage, the banker says, sign for it. Here’s a way to cure your ills, the health companies say, take it. Here’s a thrilling entertainment, the content companies say, watch it. Here’s a way to educate your kids, the colleges say, spend on it. Keep America Beautiful, don’t litter, they all add, but it’s OK if most of everything ends up at the landfill.

But we know. In their hearts, they know that things are not quite right, that the American Dream isn’t working quite to plan. Something’s missing. Some people want the top-down, just send me the bill, let-the-government-come-and-fix-it. Some do not.

Who’s going to fix it?

If you ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, then you carry a little of Route 12 in your heart as you travel. The protagonists of that book travel quite a ways along that highway. Robert Pirsig wrote:

For John’s cycle, a BMW R60, I’ll bet there’s not a mechanic between here and Salt Lake City. If his points or plugs burn out, he’s done for. I know he doesn’t have a set of spare points with him. He doesn’t know what points are. If it quits on him in western South Dakota or Montana I don’t know what he’s going to do. Sell it to the Indians maybe. Right now I know what he’s doing. He’s carefully avoiding giving any thought whatsoever to the subject. The BMW is famous for not giving mechanical problems on the road and that’s what he’s counting on.

What’s that all about?

Robert Hood may have put it best:

Zen had a profound effect on me. Before reading it, I used to get impatient with the unfamiliar processes of fixing things around the house. Replacing a damaged window screen or fixing a leaky faucet used to make me crazy. This would happen because I viewed every repair in terms of what I didn’t know rather than what I could learn. That usually set up self-fulfilling prophecies in which mistakes multiplied to the point where I just didn’t want to attempt to fix things around the house. “I’ll screw it up even worse. Just call a repairman,” became my response to problems.

But then I read Zen and my outlook completely changed. Pirsig taught me that no repairman will ever care as much about a repair as I will; therefore I should be the one to do the repair. He also taught me that experience builds upon itself. For example, fixing that window screen last year means that I know how to replace the door screen today. Most importantly, Pirsig taught me about the deep comfort you achieve when you know something is done with quality. The book helped me realize that I own the creation and maintenance of quality in my life.

What’s this all to do with the bioeconomy?

When the solution is in our hands, and we build something ourselves to lift ourselves out of our troubles — for example, a job at a factory that takes a waste stream and turns it into a valued product — that’s when we feel good, deep inside. Even better than building something sustainable, we build something we want to sustain.

So, why do we see all this anger, all around us? Why The Great Divide, the impatience, why the love of shortcuts when there are no shortcuts to the top, why all the desire to rip apart a system by which we’ve lived — which is kind of what the Green New Deal is all about, a tear-down disguised as a hand-out.

Pirsig wrote: “To tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”

Maybe the problem is that we are doing an awful lot of communicating at each other, and broadcasting to each other, and less listening in depth, more selfies. Less engagement, less change within. Too many rallies, too much shouting, aimed at making the change from without, instead of within, and seeing perhaps that the means of change has always been there. Pirsig advises: “We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.”

Alleluias in the Waste stream

Pirsig said, “You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.”

I don’t know if a motorcycle trip is the cure for what ails us, but being outside the frame, being engaged, feeling the air, that makes sense. Making something for ourselves, from your own hands, from the ground up, it changes us. The direct contact, the direct experience, the neighbor-to-neighbor, it is the engine for everything that moves our society, from Christian witnessing and gay pride to the dinner party and the bake sale.

The message, I heard it along Route 12 for many years, in a Charles Wesley song that formed the Easter processional — yes, there are many cultures in the United States and the old settler culture of the Pacific Northwest is just one of them, and I claim no special place for Wesleyan Methodism. But when spring time arrived we knew that more than the fragrance of flowers was in the air, it was a time of re-birth, and we sang the cadences of the alleluias because of something special around us and within us. We were rising then, and the people of that land are rising now. As Wesley put it, “Like Him we rise, Alleluia!”

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