Water Quality

Protecting water quality and reducing water consumption are key objectives for Northwest paper producers.

In paper mills, water is used in one stage of the papermaking process to create a slurry of recycled paper or wood waste mixed with certain chemicals.  The mixture is heated to break down the material into individual fibers.  The water is then removed and reused. (See “How Paper is Made”)

Paper producers have made great strides in reducing water use.  The American Forest & Paper Association reports that between 1975 and 2006, AF&PA mills decreased the volume of discharged water per ton of production by 53 percent and dramatically improved the quality of that water.

The performance of many Northwest paper producers is even more impressive.  For example, since 2004, one NWPPA member reduced its treated wastewater by more than one million gallons per day.  Another member reduced its water use per pound of product by 50% in the last ten years and the company’s overall water use has dropped 37% since 2004, even with higher production levels.

Paper producers are also using water more efficiently.  Water is reused several times before it is finally cleaned and returned to the river.  AF&PA reports that one paper mill estimated it used its processing water 12 times prior to cleaning and returning it to the river.  Overall, paper makers return 88 percent of the water they withdraw back to receiving streams and rivers.

Paper makers are making great strides in protecting water quality.

Water is carefully cleaned before being returned to the rivers; still, some traces of organic materials may remain. AF&PA reports that since 1975, the amount of dissolved organic materials in discharged water has been reduced by 88 percent.

Water used in the papermaking process is subject to intensive regulation by federal and state environmental agencies, and environmental standards for water quality have increased as technology is able to measure ever smaller values.  In some cases, water quality is now measured in parts per quadrillion.  That’s equivalent to a single drop in 1,000 Olympic size swimming pools.  Even so, WestRock’s Longview mill reports the site had five consecutive years (2006-2011) without a single violation at the mill’s industrial wastewater treatment plant.

Despite the paper sector’s improved performance in reducing water consumption and protecting water quality, Northwest mills are determined to do even better in the years ahead.

Today, some water quality standards are measured in parts per quadrillion. That’s equivalent to a single drop in 1,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

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