A sustainable future — right down to the last straw

By Susan Shelly

photo of wheat field

photo of Mike Schock

R. Michael “Mike”
Schock ’79

After more than 35 years in the paper and paper packaging fields, R. Michael “Mike” Schock ’79, was ready to kick back and enjoy his retirement.

“We had bought our beautiful beach house on the coast of South Carolina. I retired and we were loving it,” says Schock, 62.

And then, along came an important opportunity to be a major player in Columbia Pulp, LLC, a company based in the wheat-farming area of eastern Washington that turns agricultural waste into pulp for paper and paper-based products. The offer was too good to pass up.

“So, my wife and I are moving out to Washington,” Schock says. “We bought property out there that’s near a ski area, and there’s lots of opportunity for fishing and hunting, which I love. We’re pretty excited.”

Schock has been involved with Columbia Pulp since 2010, when Mark Lewis, a staff member at the University of Washington, and William McKean, a professor of paper science and chemical engineering there, approached him for help with taking an idea to the next level.

Their idea was to use excess wheat straw to make tree-free, environmentally sustainable pulp that could be used to make paper. Previously, most of the wheat straw was burned, resulting in thousands of tons in emissions.

“Farmers were causing more air pollution than anyone else in the state,” Schock says.

A veteran of the paper industry who understood the pressures to make paper production more environmentally sustainable, Schock was intrigued with the new technology. So, when the company was founded and Schock was asked to be a partner, the Albright grad was all in.

“I invested with three other people and we formed Columbia Pulp,” says Schock, who was named the company’s vice president in August.

Columbia is the first commercial pulp mill built in the United States in more than 25 years, and the first non-wood pulp mill employing proprietary technology, built either here or abroad.

“It’s just a great story,” Schock says.

“The sustainability of this process is really going to resonate with customers, who have been after the paper and packaging industries to become more environmentally friendly for years.”

The proprietary process employed by Columbia Pulp was designed to use significantly fewer chemicals, and less water and energy than a traditional pulp
mill. Raw materials for the mill will be sourced from within a 75-mile radius, supporting local wheat growers by purchasing excess wheat and alfalfa straw.

“The whole process is phenomenally innovative,” Schock says. “The product will be less expensive, and is made with much less of a carbon footprint than traditional wood pulp mills. So, it’s the best of both worlds.”

Columbia Pulp also uses a byproduct of the pulping process to produce liquid bio-polymers that are used in products including de-icers, pesticide and liquid fertilizer performance enhancers, dust control and soil stabilizers and animal feed additives. In the future, Schock says, bio-polymers will have another use.

“The next generation of that stuff will be used to make bio-plastics,” he says.

“I can tell you that Nike is already very interested in that.”

Currently, the company operates a pilot plant in Pomeroy, Washington, and is constructing a $184 million manufacturing facility in Lyons Ferry, Washington. Located along the Snake River, the facility is set to open this year and will employ about 90 people. A Columbia Pulp office in Dayton, Washington, employs about 20 people.

His retirement looks much different than what Schock thought it would, but he couldn’t be more excited about the chance to be involved with a company that has the capacity to change the way paper is made.

“If this stops being fun, I’ll quit,” he says. “But for now, it’s great. It keeps life interesting, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”