“This is the heartbeat of a 50-mile area,” Shawn Williams says from a corner of Georgia-Pacific’s Naheola mill on a cool morning. “If you live in the community, this is where you want to work.”
The Georgia-Pacific mill sits 100 yards from the meandering Tombigbee River, which runs the length of Choctaw County, a heavily wooded expanse of sparsely populated land in western Alabama. The mill is an hour from the Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge, a recreation site on the Tombigbee that attracts droves of wintering waterfowl every year. And Shawn, like many of the county’s 12,000 residents, likes to spend time on the banks of that river with a fishing line in its waters. So does his father, who retired as a millwright after a 40-year career at Naheola.
It’s this connection to the land, the river and the people of Choctaw County that motivates Shawn. He sees the mill as more than a job provider — he envisions it as a guide for how to create a sustainable relationship between industry and nature.
“I think it’s our duty to protect the environment and make sure we make the place better. That’s a purpose for everybody here,” Shawn says. “It’s home.”
In less than a decade, Shawn and his coworkers have eliminated tens of millions of pounds of waste produced by the mill, which makes household paper products — Angel Soft® bath tissue, Sparkle® paper towels and the bleached paperboard used to make Dixie® cups and plates – from tree logs delivered daily. Shawn is now encouraging coworkers to extend the mill’s stewardship efforts throughout the county, from conducting river cleanups to creating partnerships with Keep Alabama Beautiful and local government.
Generations of Shawn’s family members have worked in this 62-year-old mill. His grandmother was one of the first group of women employed by the mill — she was a paper-tester for board products in the 1950s. In addition to his father, many uncles, cousins and friends also have clocked time at Naheola. Shawn, after earning his degree in environmental science at the University of West Alabama, has worked at Naheola for 24 years.
In 2012, Shawn took on the role of leading the mill’s environmental waste programs. At that time, Naheola wasn’t unusual in the paper industry for producing waste that ended up in on-site landfills. But under Shawn's vision, Naheola started the journey to eliminate waste from the mill’s processes. The project suited his passions for the environment, the mill and the community. He pursued methods large and small for the mill to meet its goal.
Shawn's zeal for recycling and his aptitude for efficiency linked to solve this challenge. He started meticulously monitoring, adding an app system that tracks the whereabouts of waste throughout the facility and helps tally reports on the portion of waste that leaves it. He and his team started to implement new processes, from efforts as large as reusing tree bark as energy to power the mill to as small as positioning recycling and composting bins throughout the mill.
With 950 employees and as many as 500 contractors passing through daily, changing mindsets and behaviors around what makes for waste and what can be recycled and recovered for new uses has required patience and instruction. “It’s a cultural change,” Shawn explains, adding there is no access to public recycling services in the area making this concept new to many mill employees.
Shawn’s recycling leadership and efforts have turned massive amounts of once-discarded waste into something of value again. Scrap metal is sold to an industrial recycler. Another company buys unneeded wooden pallets for reuse. Yet another company takes a portion of the mill’s waste and creates fertilizer for farmers’ fields. Used cardboard at Naheola is turned into brown paper towels at Georgia-Pacific facilities in Savannah, Georgia, and Muskogee, Oklahoma.
“Waste from these paper-making processes is recycled into other products that provide value to people again instead of going straight to a landfill,” Shawn says.
Last year, Williams’ waste-cutting got a big boost when Georgia-Pacific replaced the mill’s coal-burning boiler with a biomass and natural gas system. Before the biomass system, process byproducts – like tree bark and sawdust, plus newspapers, paper from recycling bins and pallets – that weren't recycled into the paper products were hauled to the landfill. Now, 56 tractor-truck loads of it are used in the 280-foot-high boiler as an energy source powering the mill’s operations.
The mill’s biomass program won the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ENERGY STAR® Industrial Award for Top Project of 2019. The mill’s next ambitious effort is to cut energy intensity — the amount of power needed to produce each unit of product — by 10% in five years as part of the EPA's ENERGY STAR Challenge for Industry. This is something only four paper mills have achieved — all four are Georgia-Pacific mills.
To date, these efforts have slashed the facility’s landfill waste by 74%. In 2019, 70% of all waste from Naheola was recycled, contributing to a Koch enterprisewide waste reduction of 53% (527 million pounds) from 2012 to 2019 and Koch Industries earning the EPA's ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year Award in 2021.
Shawn says he expects to reduce Naheola’s current level of landfill waste by more than half again. “There’s no recipe or instruction manual on how to minimize waste that goes to a landfill. It’s just been trial and error to see what works and makes an impact,” he adds.
With Shawn leading the way, stewardship is more than what happens within the Naheola mill. It’s expanded into a campaign to help the broader community. Shawn organized a group of Georgia-Pacific employees last year to join him for a river cleanup. Due to COVID-19, the 2020 event was cancelled, but they are planning now for a 2021 cleanup, as well as discussing a partnership with Keep Alabama Beautiful to sponsor community cleanups.
“Hopefully, what we start doing inside the mill goes communitywide. The community has been trying to get recycling in this area for a long time,” he says.
Being a good steward of resources will continue to be the vision at Georgia-Pacific — and all Koch companies — and Shawn and his team will keep seeking better ways to operate more and more sustainably. As the latest Choctaw County generation to pass through this mill, he and his coworkers want to leave their mark.
Shawn concludes, “When it’s home, you get better ownership, and better productivity from your people … it’s personal.”