Landowners Grab on to the E-commerce Freight Train
Pulpwood for Boxes a Healthy Market
By: Ray Glier June 26, 2018
Private landowner Joe Hopkins is a two-way business partner with the colossus that is Amazon. On the front end, some of his small diameter trees, even some of his chip and saw trees, are the pulpwood that helps make the corrugated box that carries the products of the behemoth company. Amazon ships approximately 1.8 million boxes a day because consumers no longer shop once a week. They shop every day. On the back end of the deal, the boxes bearing Amazon’s wordmark, the curved arrow, land on Hopkins’ doorstep throughout the week. The nearest Wal-Mart is 30 miles away from Hopkins’ home in the wood basket hamlet of Folkston, so he saves gas and orders online. It’s reasonable to assume one of those Amazon boxes that arrives on his front porch could have come from a tree that sat on a tract of land Hopkins forested. “Any business that uses a forest product is good for my business,” Hopkins said. “The box business and the continued expansion of e-commerce is going to be good for forest landowners. I realize it may hurt the mom and pop (brick and mortar) business, but would the greater use of corrugated boxes help me? Yes, it would.” The emergent e-commerce market is providing a healthy boost for Georgia’s forest landowners. There is an oversupply of wood in Georgia, a result of the housing downturn 10 years ago that the wood economy hasn’t fully recovered from. The keen stewardship of land and replanting of trees by our forest landowners has added to the inventory. Amazon and other online retailers are taking some of the wood off our hands because of the need for corrugated boxes for shipping. According to Forbes, Amazon’s market value is a staggering $471 billion and that is by capturing just 37 percent of online business in the U.S. The online beast, which ships products in about 50 different sized boxes, is still growing. Thus, the corrugated box market is expected to grow by 20 percent by 2021, according to the analysts at Smithers Pira. Hopkins is the president of Toledo Manufacturing Company, which owns substantial acreage in South Georgia. The majority of his wood goes to the WestRock mill on Amelia Island, Florida. WestRock is the second largest producer of containerboard in North America, so it should be steady business for the 65-year old landowner. Is Hopkins getting the price he wants that will help him reforest? No. But considering e-commerce still represents only 5.5 percent of all U.S. retail sales - and that number is only climbing - he is still going to have some steady revenue. “I would think the pulp mills that are in existence are running hard,” Hopkins said.
Joe Hopkins is a forest landowner and manager in South Georgia.
Twenty years ago there were doubts the mills would be running at all. The Digital Age was supposed to be doom for pulpwood and paper. In 1999, Dick Brass, Microsoft’s vice president of technology developed, told a publishing conference in San Francisco that “20 years from now paper will be a thing of the past.”
There was more doom predicted for paper with a push for biofuels plants in the state. As newspapers and magazines - those in print - were just starting their downward spiral there was belief wood could be used for the new energy source: ethanol and biofuel.
Bill Guthrie, the general manager at DS Smith for Timber, Lumber and Timberlands, said the death of pulpwood has been greatly exaggerated.
“A few years ago, there was the argument pulp and paper is dead so let’s drag all these bioenergy plants here,” Guthrie said. “I argued with that aggressively.”
You only have to look at the DS Smith mill in Riceboro to see how alive and well pulp and paper is in Georgia. The mill was formerly the Interstate Resources mill, which was built in 1968. It is still humming along. The mill was part of a $920 million acquisition in August 2017 of 19 Interstate production sites by DS Smith as it sought to increase its footprint in the U.S.
Mr. Brass, who pays $920 million for an out-of-date business? The Riceboro mill is a thriving engine for the local economy. DS Smith churns 45-50 million board feet of fine lumber per year, but the centerpiece is the “Paper Machine,” a robust monolith of steel and technology that has turned pulp into paper for 50 years. DS Smith views itself as a packaging company and the virgin linerboard that comes out of this mill could be used for one of those boxes that ends up on Joe Hopkins’ doorstep as part of the e-commerce boom.
Steve Fowler, the Wood Procurement Manager for DS Smith in Riceboro, said the mill unloads wood from 150-170 trucks a day to supply the needs of the saw mill and paper (chip) mill. The paper mill produces rolls of brown paper that can weigh 4,000 to 8,000 pounds. “Demand is certainly up on boxes and e-commerce has definitely been a boon to anybody making boxes,” said Dr. Chris Luettgen, the Associate Director Pulp and Paper Renewable BiProducts Institute (RBI) at Georgia Tech. “International Paper, Graphic Packaging and WestRock and on to Amazon and Wal-Mart, these people are increasing demand for material for boxes. We know that these paper companies are increasing capacity and trying to de-bottleneck their operations. They are running full. “These are aging assets so you see reinvestment going on. There is a swing up with people making boxes out of recycled fiber or virgin kraft pulp. The big players are making good margins.” That’s what bothers Hopkins. He is having to thread a needle with his operation at Toledo, being precise with every timber tract and how to manage it and monetize it. Hopkins is delighted with the uptick in e-commerce, but he said the market needs to be kinder to the forest landowner. “This is the first time I have seen us not track with the markets,” said Hopkins, who was named Landowner of The Year in 2017 by the Forest Landowners Association. “That’s a real concern to me. If lumber prices are down, I expect my stumpage prices to go down. But everybody is making money, but I’m not. I’m back in the old depressed prices. We’ve got too many trees.” The e-commerce economy cannot grow fast enough for forest landowners. Always, they are looking for competitive markets for their wood to try and get a raise in prices. “Our wood is worth less money now than it was 30 years ago. Site prep rates have over doubled. Logging rates have over doubled. Taxes have gone up,” Hopkins said. “Everything has gone up with the exception of what we get for wood (adjusted for inflation). “There should be $12 to $15 dollars a ton difference between pulp wood and chip and saw. When they get down to $2 $3 $4 a lot of the pulp wood mills are able to buy chip and saw trees.” The good news is Wal-Mart has 30 million products available to buy on-line and is just joining in the e-commerce bonanza with Amazon. The fiber in a box can be recycled and reused seven times before it turns to dust…or is used for bathroom tissue. So more boxes have to be made. The wood procurement executives need raw material and they have plenty of it in the wood basket of South Georgia. “If I own a mill and I have people out there in charge procuring wood for that mill I am not going to tell them ‘hey, let’s go ahead and pay that landowner an extra $15 a ton’,” Hopkins said. “I am going to pay only what I have to. I understand it. That’s the American Way. But if they expect us to stay in business we are going to have to get more money.”
Nanocellulose Brings Potential Advancements to Supply Chain
Dr. Charles Herty would be impressed at how the scientists that have followed him in the pulp and paper field have carried on his fact-finding in the packaging industry.
The strides in research have been many, but here is one the founder of pulp and paper might take particular notice of. It gives even more use for the corrugated box made of Georgia pulpwood.
Nanocellulose research is being tested as the liner for linerboard. For instance, take fish shipped by plastic container. The plastic container is necessary to insulate from moisture and air. But scientists are testing how to coat a box with a thin layer of nanocellulose, which provides a barrier to air and moisture.
Now look at the issue. If we can rid ourselves of the use of so much plastic in shipping — the kind that formed the giant island of discarded plastic in the Pacific Ocean — the container made of pulp wood is more renewable with the aid of nanocellulose.
Here is the other application of the science Dr. Herty would be proud of.
The printed electronics market is booming. Those barcodes on boxes with radio frequency identification (RFID) need to be protected. The science is evolving that nanocellulose can cover that barcode with a smooth, flexible, and durable coating. The bar code, which is being used to not only track, but identify what is in a box, can stand up to hazards.
MDIP, which is a scientific exchange based in Basel, Switzerland, is conducting research into paper substrates. It had this to say:
“Using cellulose nanofibrils (CNF) as the strength additive in the inorganic composite structure, it is possible to surpass the properties of traditional paper substrates. It has been shown that this new pigment-cellulose nanofibril (PCN) substrate can contain up to 90 percent of inorganic fillers and, yet, remain mechanically stable and flexible.”
What that means is that engineering of our boxes is going to make our boxes even more popular for packaging and shipping. It is cardboard over plastic, once again.
Ray Glier is a journalist with 42 years of experience telling stories in sports and business. He has spent most of his career in the Atlanta area working for USA TODAY, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Youth TODAY and many others
Georgia Forestry Magazine is published by HL Strategy, an integrated marketing and communications firm focused on our nation's biggest challenges and opportunities. Learn more at hlstrategy.com