Believe it or not, concepts of recycling and sustainability aren’t all that new to some manufacturers. Step inside a Beloit-area paperboard maker whose process is much the same as it was a century ago.
When you’re done reading this magazine, where will it go? If you put it into your recycle bin, there’s a good chance it’ll wind up at Beloit Box Board Co., 801 Second St., in Beloit, where it’ll be broken down into pulp and reconstituted as the back of a notebook or legal pad, or perhaps as a plain cardboard package. Then again, maybe it’ll hold a child’s board game, or become the backing of a book cover. In the paperboard business, your trash is transformed into treasure.
The process of manufacturing paperboard, also called chipboard, hasn’t much changed since this company started in 1907, in the same location where it operates today. Every day, some 80 tons of scrap paper and used cardboard are pulped, cleaned, plied, dried and cut, on the way to becoming something useful. What isn’t used is simply recycled.
Although the company doesn’t promote its sustainability habits, Beloit Box Board is an inherently green manufacturer, a place where new-school conservation technology meets old-school production.
Through five generations of family ownership, this company has maintained a consistent product and long-lasting relationships with Beloit-area workers and businesses, in a region where manufacturing employs nearly one-fifth of our region’s workforce. Although conditions have changed over 100 years, some of our region’s strengths are still very much the same.
“The advantage of being in Beloit is that we’re in the heart of the country, so we can ship in every direction – north, south, east and west – and that makes us competitive,” says Erik Chamberlain, sales manager and co-owner with brothers Andrew and David. “We have a contract with the City of Beloit for their curbside recycling, so we get about five tons of paper a day from the residents of Beloit, and we work with many local companies for raw material.”
From Waste to Water
Chipboard is a combination of mixed paper and corrugated cardboard boxes, layered into multiple plies of paper. The outside layers, or liners, are mostly cardboard-based, while the inner layers, or filler, contain more mixed paper.
“Our raw material is mixed paper, pretty much your curbside recycling,” explains Chamberlain. “We also use old corrugated materials. You’ll see bales of corrugated outside chain stores and grocery stores, and that’s what ends up here.”
Scrap paper arrives in the receiving area, a tall warehouse filled with 1,500-pound bales of the stuff. Look inside these bales, and you’ll see newspapers, mailers, soda packages and the like, collected from around Wisconsin, Illinois and the Twin Cities. When the Beloit recycling truck arrives, it dumps papers on the floor, so they can be scooped onto a conveyor that travels up to the pulpers.
Upstairs, a warehouse of corrugated paper is filled with bales and pallets of scrap cardboard, some collected from big-box stores, others from local manufacturers and distribution centers. Sometimes, Chamberlain accepts pallets of brand-new cardboard, discarded by a supplier’s customer.
“This is as clean as you can get,” says Chamberlain, pointing to a pallet of neatly stacked boxes, still in their factory packaging. “Maybe they were bar coded wrong, or printed wrong, or it’s an overrun.”
By contrast, much of the mixed paper includes tagalong trash, such as plastic bottles and bags, beer cans, notebook spirals and Styrofoam. That debris will be filtered out later.
Bales are forklifted to the next room over, where two pulper machines break down the paper and cardboard into pulp. On one side, a conveyor moves bales of mixed paper to the filler pulper, which creates the inner plies of paper. On the other side, employee Zach Butts scoops boxes and papers into the liner pulper, which creates the outer plies.
“It’s pretty old-school,” says Chamberlain. “They literally kick paper into a hole in the floor for the liner pulper.”
Butts leans over a railing and peers down into the pulper, where cardboard swirls around in water heated to 120 F.
“The pulper is just a beater with hot water in it,” says Chamberlain. “It’s the same as if you put your newspaper in the kitchen sink, run the water on it, and mush it up. It would just turn into a mushy stock.”
The paper mush is separated from debris as it’s pushed through a series of strainers – a large one to remove bottles and large waste, and smaller strainers to remove staples and Styrofoam beads.
“Debris that’s heavier than paper fibers is separated out through centrifugal force,” says Ryan Morris, mill manager. “The heaviest stuff gets forced against the side of the wall and is rejected, while the paper is accepted through the center. It catches glass and metal staples, mostly. Styrofoam doesn’t decompose, it’s round and it fits through the larger filters, so we have a rectangular slot that paper fibers can pass through, but Styrofoam can’t. We have vibrating equipment that dewaters the rejected debris and corrugated material that won’t break down.”
Chamberlain approaches a vertical strainer and pulls out some pulp. After he squeezes out the water, it looks like those brown paper towels from science class. Pretty soon, this pulp will become paperboard.
From Pulp to Paper
Papermaking requires lots of water, a primary reason this company’s predecessors set up shop inside a former saw mill along the Rock River. When paper production started in 1855, this building pumped fresh water from the river and dumped its leftovers there, too. At least five mills operated along the river between Beloit and Rockford, back then. Today, Beloit Box Board is the only paper maker left, and it no longer involves river water in its process.
Through the late 1800s, the factory housed five successive paper mill companies. Then, in 1907, Chamberlain’s great-great-grandfather, J.A. Fisher, a mill superintendent, bought shares in the newly formed Beloit Box Board Co. By 1923, Fisher had become the sole owner. He passed the company to his sons in the 1940s, who passed it down to their sons in the 1960s. It was passed in 1985 to Chamberlain’s father, Joseph, who had married into the family. Chamberlain and his brothers assumed control when their father retired in 2005.
With its twists and turns, this factory is an impressive relic of manufacturing’s bygone days, but its equipment is a combination of new and old. Some machines wear out, and others are added to improve efficiency. Inside the paper making room, narrow windows shed light on a series of behemoth vats, some produced next door at the old Beloit Corp.
These seven vats and the cylindrical drums inside are churning up pulp and slapping it onto the bottom of a felt-covered conveyor belt that begins in the middle of the room. Each cylinder adds a new layer, or ply, onto the felt-like material. A sheet can have as many as seven plies.
“There’s a ply riding on the edge of the cylinder, as it travels clockwise,” explains Chamberlain. “As it hits the felt and a couch roll, which is rotating counterclockwise, the ply sticks to the bottom of the felt and is released from the cylinder. When the cylinder leaves the felt, it has nothing on it, until it comes back around, picks up another ply, and meets the felt.”
As the felt passes each additional cylinder, a new ply is added. Once it’s hit the final cylinder, the felt winds around, flipping the paper on its way to the dryer section, where hot air set to 190 F and steam-heated driers evaporate all of the remaining water. Right after the dryer section, a calendar stack flattens the paper to a desired thickness and feeds a sheeter, where the continuous paper is cut into sheets.
The sheeter spits out paper to three workers, who remove piles of sheets and stack them onto pallets. On this particular day, the long sheets coming out will become the backs of legal pads. The legal pad maker will take these large sheets, add paper and binding, and then cut the sheet into four pads. The narrower sheets coming off today’s line will go to Beloit Box Board’s cutting room, where several men are trimming sheets and packaging custom orders. Later today, these fresh sheets will be trucked to another manufacturer, for final processing.
Given its old-school process, Beloit Box Board’s production jobs are mostly entry-level, requiring only on-the-job training, a willingness to learn and an ability to communicate. The 50 employees here average about 20 years each, and some are the second or third generations of their families to work here.
“I’m 35, and a lot of these guys have been here as long as I’ve been alive,” says Chamberlain. “Not many people can say they’ve only worked at one place.”
The toughest adjustment for many new employees is the swing shift schedule that rotates through three shifts.
“The skills you need are unique to papermaking,” says Morris. “It’s more the ability to learn, and, if you’re on swing shift, the ability to adjust to our schedule.”
Sustainability practices have a growing influence in the manufacturing sector, which consumes some 96 billion kilowatts of energy every year in the U.S., according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA). Some of the heaviest users include metal, chemical and oil processors, computer makers and food producers. Paperboard mills consume about 3.5 billion kilowatts every year, 1.4 billion in the Midwest.
Energy costs in Illinois and Wisconsin are roughly on par with the national average, which is 9.84 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), according to the EIA. While Illinois is slightly under, at 8.40, Wisconsin is slightly over, at 10.30.
For Chamberlain and his brothers, the incentive to think sustainably is a combination of cost-cutting, product marketing and customer demand. Many of its sustainability practices date back decades. The company has sourced recycled paper since at least the 1920s, when it obtained printers’ scraps.
Paper production’s greatest resource is water, which Beloit Box Board consumes at a rate of thousands of gallons per day, in a process that runs around the clock for one or two weeks at a time. In the 1980s, Chamberlain’s father installed a closed water system that cleans and reuses the dirty water that isn’t evaporated.
“We don’t dump our wastewater into the river, and we don’t discharge it into the city’s water treatment plant,” says Chamberlain. “Our system cleans the water that doesn’t evaporate in our process, and then, when we have a daylong shutdown of the plant for routine maintenance, all of the excess water goes into these tanks. When we resume, we pump from these tanks first.”
Down in the boiler room, the natural gas boiler gets an energy-saving boost from a wood stove.
“We use old wood scraps from pallets that we can’t refurbish,” says Chamberlain. “We’ll throw them in the wood stove and that preheats the incoming air that goes into the boiler. That saves us about 1 percent in natural gas costs. That isn’t much, but over the course of the year, it adds up.”
In its commitment to quality, Beloit Box Board maintains ISO 9001 certification for quality management and ISO 14001 for environmental management. Beloit Box Board is also certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), an international label that promotes responsible forest management for virgin paper fiber. It’s a marketing tool heavily supported by the big-box customers who hire Chamberlain’s customers.
“It’s a pretty easy audit for us, because we don’t use any trees,” says Chamberlain. “95 percent of what we use is post-consumer waste and the rest is pre-consumer waste, discarded by manufacturers.”
The Family Advantage
Consistency is an important concept at five-generation Beloit Box Board. The sixth generation, David’s son, Justin, is now learning the trade.
Customers and suppliers have come and gone over the decades, but for more than a century, this business has been an important industrial fixture in Beloit. The fact that it’s remained independent through so many economic changes appeals to its customers, who are spread out from California to Massachusetts. And, it’s been a loyal supporter of the local workforce.
“The company’s success, in large part, is due to our workforce, which takes great pride and ownership in the paperboard that is produced here,” says Chamberlain.
“Without our loyal, hard-working employees, we wouldn’t be experiencing the past and current success we’ve had here. It takes the entire company and personnel in all departments to run the paper machine and produce a quality finished product.”