The Twin Rivers Paper Company Madawaska mill taken on a snowy day April 9, 2020. Credit: Morgan Mitchell

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MADAWASKA, Maine — Paper mills owned by Twin Rivers Paper Company, like the one in Madawaska, are working to develop materials to be used for various personal protective equipment such as gowns and face masks as well as for disinfectant wipes.

Twin Rivers Paper Mill in Madawaska is just one of six paper mills owned by the Twin Rivers Paper Company, which also has pulp and lumber mills in Edmundston, New Brunswick.

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The company’s Little Falls, New York, operation is already producing materials for disinfectant wipes.

Vice president of business and development Brian McAlary said that even prior to coronavirus, the company had been “looking at ways to use paper as a substitute for nonwovens.”

Nonwoven material is sometimes synthetic, and is spun and sometimes blown like plastic or glass. Nonwovens are used in a lot of masks and wipes that people buy, according to McAlary.

“These nonwoven materials have come up in short supply because they are needed in the medical industry for the specialty masks or the specialty wipes,” McAlary said.

Twin Rivers was in the process of developing other paper materials in response to nonwovens prior to the pandemic, partially because the paper-based products are better for the environment, McAlary said.

But he stressed that the materials are not commercial.

“We’re working with people who are trying to develop a finished product and put it out into the market,” he said.

McAlary added that they are only shipping a small amount of paper; ultimately, they are doing more testing and product development.

Specifically in Madawaska, there’s an opportunity to produce materials used for medical gowns using pulp produced at the Edmundston plant, but the trials for the material are in early stages.

One of the hurdles manufacturers need to overcome are FDA rules and guidelines. While Twin Rivers Paper Mill is approved by the FDA for food contact items, there is another set of FDA guidelines for medical-grade equipment that needs to be addressed before the finished product is approved, McAlary said.

There are different levels and tiers of personal protection equipment, and “that’s part of the challenge for our clients when they are involved in this.”

Right now, Twin Rivers just has samples of materials for different PPE that may or may not be “viable.”

“There’s no guarantee that you’ll have any business from a commercial stand-point,” he said. “That’s why they call it product development, because that’s what it is.”

He added that the company has “really good work being done on the development side,” but said that they were not at the stage to sell the materials for the masks or gowns commercially.

“But we’re taking the same approach that we did to the wipes, is that we’re going through and working with a number of new clients as well as existing clients and positioning our paper [mills] in both New York and Madawaska into some of these applications so that people can design and redesign products and then get them tested so they can be used commercially in the market,” McAlary said.

“For someone to say ‘hey guys, Twin Rivers has a paper that’s being used for masks available on the market,’ we’re not there yet,” he said. “Very close, but not there yet.”

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