More than 40 trillion rolls of bathroom tissue have rolled down the production line at a local manufacturing plant in the past century.
Today, the Kruger Products plant in New West produces more than 11 million cases of bathroom and facial tissue annually and employs over 360 employees. Located near Stewardson Way, it’s the only tissue paper production site in Western Canada.
“Our bread and butter is Purex; that is the reason this mill exists,” says Mark Evans, general manager of the New West plant. “Purex is the Number 1 bathroom tissue in Western Canada. It’s a big, big deal.”
In honour of its 100th anniversary, Kruger recently invited employees’ family and friends, as well as some of its stakeholders, to tour the plant as a way of showcasing the work of its employees. Although the local plant rarely opens up to the public, it’s not quite as top secret as its Memphis or Sherbrook mills, where visitors must sign confidentiality agreements to ensure tricks of the trade aren’t revealed.
Along with toilet paper, the New West plant also produces “lots and lots” of Scotties facial tissue, the Number 1 brand in Canada.
“It’s an incredible accomplishment. You think about how many businesses have not made it past their first five years, so to be around for 100 is amazing. And 100 in the same place is amazing,” Evans says. “We are still making a product that we need, which is pretty cool.”
The importance of toilet paper in people’s lives was never clearer than in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when customers flocked to stores across North America to stock up – often leaving shelves empty.
“It was bizarre,” Evans recalls. “We make a product that, now, we know is essential. We knew that, but you didn’t appreciate that. Right? It was just toilet paper. And then all of a sudden it was the hottest commodity in town.”
For Kruger employees, the soaring demand for toilet paper was a source of pride in the value of their work to everyday folks.
“It was really busy for a while. We shipped February, March of 2020 – it feels like ancient history now – we were shipping 77, 80 even 100 per cent more than the same month the year prior,” Evans says. “It was just insanity. But we can’t make 100 per cent more. This is a really capital intensive business. The machines are not cheap – so you don’t just buy them to have them sitting and waiting in case you run them.”
So, in order to meet the early-pandemic demand, Kruger honed in on producing certain “flavours” of Purex, such as 12- and 24-roll packages. Instead of producing its regular lineup of about 25 different products, it focused on five products as a way of expediting production (machines have to be changed up to produce different products) – only returning to pre-pandemic operations 14 to 16 months after the pandemic began.
“It’s a big bulky product. It’s not spices. When you are out of stock in spices, there’s a hole in the shelf. When you are out of stock of toilet paper, they kind of go, ‘whoa,’” Evans says. “So, once their shelves were approaching full and the warehouses were back to normal and our warehouses were back to normal, it was like, ‘OK, the supply line is full again; we can go back to more flavours.”
Westminster Paper Mills Limited, as the company was originally known, opened in 1922. After being destroyed by fire in 1929, it was rebuilt – with some help from the City of New Westminster.
In the decades since, the company became Scott Paper in 1954 and then Kruger Products in 2007.
Evans said the Westminster Paper Mills site was likely less than 10 acres in size when the plant first opened, but has grown to 35 acres. Acquisitions include the Rayonier lumber mill site (which was destroyed by fire in 1967), single family homes and the former Doman mill site.
“This site has grown. It has expanded like you wouldn’t believe since 1922,” he says. “They bought out neighbours. They expanded over Fifth Avenue. They have expanded out to the west. One after the other after the other.”
As land has been acquired, buildings have also been added to the site, including a relic from Expo 86; the former Russian pavilion is currently used to store giant cubes of pulp.
Another piece of local history found on the site comes in the form of a long, skinny building that housed the New Westminster Curling Club from 1955 to 1966.
The Kruger plant is currently home to two paper machines and six converting machines.
“It’s really two big processes here – you take pulp, and you turn it into tissue paper on a paper machine. You make what’s called a jumbo roll – that’s seven feet wide and seven feet in diameter, 3,500 pounds – it’s huge. But that’s the basis of tissue paper,” Evans explains. “You then take those rolls to the converting area and you convert it into a product you recognize. We wind it, we ply it, we perforate it, we emboss it, we cut it to size and then we wrap it and put it into either a case for shipping, or more and more, we put it on pallets – PMDs, which is pre merchandized display. And then away it goes.”
Through the decades, the plant has made many changes to address the environment.
To produce products sold at everything from small ma and pa stores to giant retailers like Costco, Kruger has added buildings to produce and store products. Through the decades, it’s also introduced new machines (including some so it can produce Costco’s house brand) and taken others out of service.
While those decisions made sense at the time, the company is considering how to make the best use of its footprint on the shores of the Fraser River in the years ahead.
“Our individual machines are great. There is opportunity there to bring them together and share some services and make the guys who service multiple machines more effective, that kind of thing,” Evans says. “To me, that’s just a matter of time.”
As the owner of what’s likely the largest remaining industrial parcel of land in New West, Evans says a rumour comes up every few years that Kruger will sell the land for condo redevelopment and relocate elsewhere. He says that’s not going to happen, but other industrial uses on the site may be provided on the site in the decades ahead.
Evans, who has worked for the company for 32 years and has been the general manager at the New West plant for nearly five years, hopes changes can be made to make the site more efficient. Noting that the plant’s two paper machines and six converting machines are spread out over a space of about 20 acres, he believes land near the former Doman site has potential to help consolidate operations in a more effective way.
“We would get into the queue, for hopefully a new machine. But I think realistically for us the best short-term move would be to consolidate ourselves in some land we have in the back yard,” he says of future changes at the plant. “It’s consolidating the machinery in a better spot in the land.”
Watch how toilet paper tissue gets made at the New West Kruger mill in the video below.