In the mid-20th century the paper industry boomed, and several new mills opened. There was an abundant supply of raw material from the maturing pine forests planted between the wars. Local and overseas business interest in the pulp and paper industry was strong. The government was committed to industrial development and providing adequate infrastructure. A rapidly expanding economy increased demand for paper products, and difficulties importing pulp and paper during the Second World War made local manufacture desirable.
Scottish entrepreneurs were at the forefront of New Zealand’s 19th- and 20th-century pulp and paper industry. Edward McGlashan, founder of the Dunedin mill, and James Walker Bain, founder of the Mataura mill, were both born in Edinburgh – as was David Henry, who set up the Kinleith mill. James Fletcher, a founder of the Tasman mill, was from Strathclyde.
New paper mills
The first of the new mills, at Whakatāne, was set up in 1939. The Second World War slowed further developments, and the other new mills were set up after the war ended. Ownership was spread between local and international private-sector investors and the New Zealand government.
The new mills were:
- Whakatane Board Mill (1939)
- Kinleith, near Tokoroa (1953)
- Penrose, in Auckland (1951)
- Tamaki, in Auckland (1953)
- Tasman, at Kawerau (1955)
- Caxton, at Kawerau (1955).
The major new mills, Kinleith and Tasman, cost a great deal. The Tasman mill complex (including the sawmill) cost £17 million ($1 billion in 2022 terms), most of which related to the pulp mill.
By the early 1960s the amount of pulp and paper produced in New Zealand was 16 times greater than in 1945. Pulp and newsprint were exported for the first time.
Wood, power, people
The pulp and paper process uses huge amounts of water, power and raw materials. In the early 1950s, for example, the Kinleith pulp mill’s daily intake was around:
- 2,000 tonnes of logs
- 63.6 million litres of water
- 60 tonnes of coal
- 200 tonnes of wood waste.
In addition, the mill used 15,000 kilowatts of hydroelectricity annually.
Mill town memories
Before moving to Kawerau in 1955, Velma Platt and her friend ‘were real townies. We spent all our leisure time in Queen Street, [and] I lived in Ponsonby and she lived in St Heliers Bay.’ Then their husbands got jobs at the Tasman mill. ‘It was just as though we’d been dropped into the wop-wops … We had a lot of parties. There was nothing else to do! … The company was very definitely involved in the town. We called it Uncle Tas – they really looked after you.’1
The cost of building the mills was considerable, so they operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The two Kawerau operations alone employed 1,248 people. At first, many of the skilled staff who ran the mills were Scandinavian, Canadian, American or English. By the late 1950s New Zealanders had taken over many of the jobs previously done by overseas staff.
Two company towns, Tokoroa and Kawerau, were set up from scratch to house employees. In both cases, the mill companies were actively involved in running their local town. The populations were male-dominated and relatively young, and families had very high numbers of children. Māori already living in these parts of the country were a significant part of the workforce.
Paper mills in the 2000s
In 2009 there were eight pulp and/or paper mills in production. All were in the North Island (Mataura, the last of the South Island mills, closed in 2000). Ownership was spread amongst local and international investors. The government was no longer a shareholder in any of the mills.
The mills were:
- Carter Holt Harvey Paperboard, Penrose
- Carter Holt Harvey Pulp and Paper, Kinleith
- SCA Hygiene Australasia, Kawerau
- Carter Holt Harvey, Kawerau
- Carter Holt Harvey Paperboard, Kawerau
- Norske Skog, Kawerau
- Winstone Pulp International, Ohakune
- Pan Pac Forest Products, Napier.
Pulp and paper mills have a significant environmental impact through pollution of water and air.
Mill effluent goes into adjacent rivers. It discolours water, and can reduce the amount of oxygen present. Solids in the effluent may coat the riverbed. Chlorine and its derivatives, producing dioxins and other contaminants, may also be present.
As well as looking unsightly, pollution can kill plants and other life in the river. In 1997, Environment Bay of Plenty described life on the bottom of the Tarawera River, used by the Tasman mills, as ‘completely obliterated’.2 The colour of the effluent, which blocked out light, was the greatest problem.
Air pollution has also been an issue. In the mid-1990s, annual emissions from Kawerau mill chimneys included:
- 11 tonnes of metals, including boron, copper and lead
- more than 2 tonnes of sulfur gases
- 1 tonne of dust
- 900 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Reducing environmental damage
The mills have reduced their environmental impact by changing production processes, minimising waste and improving treatment of air discharges and effluent.
Many pulp mills have switched from elemental chlorine to chlorine dioxide for bleaching; this reduces the production of harmful organochlorines such as dioxins.
Effluent can now be treated to remove up to 95% of the oxygen-consuming waste.