Increasingly provocative TV commercials — a cartoon bear with white bits clinging to its bottom and a British blonde challenging passersby to “go commando” — are the public side of an arms race in toilet paper technology, and Crossett is on the front line.
Here at the paper mill that Georgia-Pacific has owned for half a century, hardwood and softwood pulp are combined into the proprietary recipes for Quilted Northern Ultra Strong & Soft (“Your hiney will be happy,” the bespectacled girl in the commercial says) and Angel Soft.
G-P employs almost 3,500 Arkansans, including 1,500 in Crossett. Of those, more than 1,100 work at the paper mill. The plant runs constantly — four shifts working an average of 40-42 hours per week — in an industry that has emphasized sustainability for decades.
Toilet paper isn’t all that the Crossett mill produces, not by a long shot. But G-P has been making toilet paper in Crossett since 1964 and, beginning in May 2012, spent most of a half-billion dollars on an entirely new process for manufacturing the tissue branded as Quilted Northern Ultra Soft & Strong.
G-P’s investment in the fast-growing “luxury” toilet paper segment is still referred to by its luxurious code name, Diamond.
Angel Soft is the product that was being finished and packaged on the “converting line” next to the mill on a bright day in October. Like all of the paper manufactured at the Crossett mill, the shelf-ready packages of toilet paper being loaded into semitrailers started life in the wood yard on the other side of the G-P campus.
“We’re called a virgin mill,” Gary Kaiser, the vice president who heads the Crossett mill, explained. “We bring raw wood in. We live in one of the best areas there is for Southern pine.”
It’s been 15 years since Georgia-Pacific owned the pine forests that ring Crossett. Those are owned by Plum Creek Timber Co. of Seattle, until its acquisition by Weyerhaeuser Co. is completed in early 2016. Plum Creek maintains the timberland and harvests and sells the pine to the mill.
Trucks back up and dump pine logs, which are stripped of bark — which is then burned for energy — and enter a chipper that spews a steady stream into piles large enough and stable enough to support heavy equipment.
Most of the hardwood forests in the vicinity were killed out long ago, Kaiser said, so hardwood is trucked in from Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas in chip form.
Using proprietary chemical processes, the wood fiber in the chips is separated from the oily byproduct called lignin. The fiber becomes paper; lignin is cooked down into a fuel called black liquor.
About 65 percent of the energy used at the Crossett plant comes from renewable sources. “You want to keep the circle as tight as you can,” said Powell Millard, the production manager who oversees the converting line. “You want to use every bit of the product.”
The chemicals that are used to separate the fiber from the lignin are reused, and the “soap” that comes out of pine rosin is processed into a product called tall oil that is sold for use in a variety of industrial applications.
Depending on the type of paper being produced, hardwood and softwood pulps are mixed in different ratios and with other secret ingredients. Counter-intuitively, toilet paper is 70 percent hardwood fiber, which is shorter and therefore softer, and about 30 percent softwood fiber.
“Pine fiber is longer and flexible, so we use it for strength,” Millard said.
Even that recipe has to be adjusted depending on the exact type of trees that have been chipped up for hardwood fiber, since oak fiber is different from maple.
“How do we handle those swings? That’s the key,” Millard said.
“Strong & Soft” is part of the name of the Quilted Northern made at Crossett, and Angel Soft’s packaging proclaims “an ideal balance of Softness & Strength.” But strength and softness aren’t just marketing words in the toilet paper industry. Toilet tissue needs to hold up when it’s being used and then break down quickly and thoroughly when it hits the water.
By contrast, paper towels — G-P’s Sparkle brand is made in Crossett — need to be simultaneously absorbent and water-resistant so that they will not break down as soon as they get wet. “So that’s science,” Millard said.
The pulp is 99.5 percent water when it goes into the mill and 2.5 percent water when it comes out, Millard said — and that’s as much as G-P will reveal about what goes into its toilet papers.
“I can tell you that Quilted Northern is different from any sheet out there,” Millard said.
Soft and Strong
Angel Soft arrives at the converting line looking like a roll of toilet paper big enough for the Statue of Liberty. The plant is enormous and well-lighted and moderately noisy — and almost devoid of human life.
“What we strive for is 95 percent automation and 5 percent human interaction,” Millard said. “What you’ll find with automated equipment, the more human interaction the more problems you have.”
The rolls are positioned precisely at one end of the plant, where LGVs — laser-guided vehicles — called “elephants” pick them up and place them on spindles. Paper is pulled rapidly from two giant rolls and pressed together to create a two-ply tissue, embossed and perforated, and then spun in precisely measured lengths onto long cardboard tubes. The machinery is carefully calibrated to pull the toilet paper hard enough to keep it moving flat, smooth and fast — but not hard enough to tear it, which would bring the process to an immediate halt.
(Although it isn’t made at Crossett, Georgia-Pacific also manufactures a three-ply toilet paper called Quilted Northern Ultra Plush — QNUP.)
Razor-sharp blades cut the long paper-wrapped tubes into the four-inch lengths that are recognizable as finished rolls of toilet paper. As they come out of the cutting machine, they are gathered and stacked and wrapped in plastic film, still with only a handful of employees monitoring the process.
The quality of the finished product is checked every hour, Millard said. Employees look for defects in the product — problems, say, with the light coat of glue that holds the first square of tissue to the roll or incomplete packaging.
“We want every roll that goes to a shelf to be the best we can make so we can get those repeat customers,” Millard said.
Because the equipment is so specialized, the employees are not. Millard called the conversion line an “adaptive workplace.”
“You don’t just have one job. Everyone’s job is to get a good product out of here,” he said.
Yellow robots called “dragons” stack packages of Angel Soft, and a different kind of laser-guided vehicle called a barge carries the stacks to the trailers waiting at the other end of the building.
A lot of toilet paper is trucked out of the Crossett plant: 100 million rolls of toilet paper, both QNUSS and Angel Soft, each month. Angel Soft, Millard says, was Georgia-Pacific’s first billion-dollar product in 2009. QNUSS reached that milestone in 2010.
The Washington Post reported in March that the American market for high-end toilet paper reached $1.4 billion last year — an increase of more than 70 percent since 2000 with no end in sight.
“The people who don’t change get passed by,” Millard said.