MAINE, Maine — A University of Maine forestry professor told a Congressional committee Tuesday that sustainable products are the key to reinvigorating communities whose economy once depended on the pulp and paper industry.
Dr. Stephen Shaler, Director of the School of Forest Resources, spoke to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, of which Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree is chairwoman.
“We certainly know in our state the heartbreak of losing a paper mill, losing the jobs, losing the heart of the community, so these new innovations are particularly important to us," Pingree said Tuesday during a two-hour hearing focused on how the state and the country can adapt by focusing on products that are environmentally and economically sustainable.
“As the world changes, we need to have that flexibility and that innovation moving forward," Shaler said.
Among those innovations is wood fiber insulation, which he said is a cost-neutral replacement for petroleum-based products or fiberglass insulation in many homes.
Wood fiber insulation is also great for a sustainable, circular economy, Shaler said. The product would be made up of wood from Maine's forests and could be recycled.
But the cost to import wood fiber is prohibitive, and the European market is already well-established, with about $700 million in annual sales, according to Joshua Henry, president of the Maine-based GO Lab, Inc.
Henry knows that market because his company will be the first to produce wood fiber insulation in North America and will be setting up a shop right here in Maine.
GO Lab is renovating Madison's old paper mill to produce three types of insulation, with plans to bring more than 100 direct jobs to the mill, and even more indirect jobs in logging and other areas of the industry.
"There’s a little bit more space to think about new products now with the decline of paper, so it’s a painful time right now, but it’s also a time of opportunity," Henry told the committee on Tuesday.
Repurposing the old mill with these new products is just one step in the effort to revitalize rural economies once dependent on paper mills.
“I think [this] a great template for economic development in the state of Maine for the future," Henry added.
Henry and Shaler told the committee that Maine and the country must focus on investment and infrastructure in order to revitalize the industry and local economies.
GO Lab's finances for its project were approved last week and Henry said crews are already at work renovating the Madison mill.