Feature Article

10/05/2021

  Specialty Paper Products

By Paul Fowler and Ron Tschida, Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology, University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point

You unwrap a cough drop and pop it in your mouth, dropping the wrapper into the recycle basket beside your desk without giving it a thought. But people in the paper industry have given that wrapper a great deal of thought. It’s an example of what the industry calls a specialty paper – a paper developed for a specific purpose and to exacting specifications. In this case, the papermakers have built in a special property called “twistiness” that helps it stay tightly around the cough drop once a machine wraps it. The paper is also specially coated to preserve freshness and to avoid sticking to the cough drop when it is unwrapped by the consumer.

This lozenge paper is just one of thousands of unique paper products made in Wisconsin, and in conversations about the viability of Wisconsin’s paper industry, talk usually turns quickly to “specialty papers” like this. Industry leaders and observers point to these as a reason for optimism. Rather than making commodity papers such as newsprint (none is made in Wisconsin), mills create a variety of paper for different applications and converters modify that paper in myriad ways for myriad end uses.

Understanding the future of Wisconsin’s paper industry requires some understanding of specialty papers because, unlike the shrinking markets in some commodity papers, the industry sees growth opportunities in specialty applications, particularly where paper may supplant plastic. Consumers are looking for sustainable products and paper increasingly is seen as a more sustainable alternative. Improvements in coating technology, for example, are opening opportunities in paper-based food packaging to replace plastic.

"Just the aversion to plastic products we're seeing today is a reason to see some optimism on the paper packaging end of things," one converter remarked, a sentiment that was repeated in numerous interviews.

While specialty papers are frequently pointed to as a sustaining force in Wisconsin’s paper industry, the term specialty paper is not well-defined even within the industry. One papermaker joked that the industry prefers to keep it that way because competition is fierce and each manufacturer strives to protect its trade secrets, so a little vagueness in descriptions may be a good thing. Nevertheless, manufacturers and converters provided some examples of Wisconsin specialty grades to illustrate this important sector.

Food papers

Ahlstrom-Munksjö, which operates four paper mills in Wisconsin, makes a wide range of specialty papers including food wrapping papers. Its website touts the performance of its “sweets, chocolate and snack wrapping paper”:

“High performance twisting, wrapping and folding papers specially developed for sustainable sweets, chocolate and snack packaging… Our Rocalonde™ grades run trouble-free on high-speed twisting machines. They resist the extreme constraints that are exerted and they have supreme twist retention so that sweets always open easily when you want them to – with no annoying rustle!”

Food wrapping paper is a significant chunk of business for Wisconsin paper manufacturers and converters, ranging from paper sleeves (interleaves) between slices of cheese or deli meat, to grease-resistant papers, baking papers and more. Domtar and Verso, like Ahlstrom-Munksjö and others, make a variety of specialty papers aimed at the food wrap market, and converters throughout Wisconsin create thousands of products for different end-uses.

Labels and release liners 

Labels are also a big part of Wisconsin specialty paper production. Labels require a face stock, on which the graphics are applied; a release liner, which protects the label adhesive until the label is to be applied to a product; the adhesive; and a top coat to protect the graphics. Converters take those papers and add adhesives and coatings designed for each specific application. Specialty papers made in Wisconsin for the wine and spirits industry, for example, stand up to water and ice baths, deliver luxurious appearances and textures, and with custom converting, are scuff resistant, can be cut to odd shapes, adhere to glass, foil, and plastic, and can be printed with digital printing equipment. They are delivered around the world.

While we may think of labels only as something adhered to a consumer product, they are in fact ubiquitous. Medical labels, for example, include prescription labels, test result labels and instrument labels. Store shelves collectively contain millions of price and item labels. Packaging of all types requires labeling.

Flexible packaging

The flexible packaging market provides an opportunity for specialty paper manufacturers as they innovate ways to base more of this packaging on paper rather than plastic.

Graphics applications

While the overall printing and writing paper market has declined in the face of digital displacement – more reading being done online – Wisconsin paper manufacturers and converters are major providers of specialty grades for graphics applications.

Other specialty categories include but are not limited to:

Construction papers, such as those used in the manufacture of roofing products, drywall and so on.

Electrical insulating papers, including papers used in batteries.

Industrial papers used in production of abrasives.

Filter papers with countless applications for air and liquid filtration, from automotive and industrial use to food preparation and medical use and much more.

Medical papers, such as used on exam tables or to package medical supplies.

 

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