The West Midlands’ last remaining paper mill marked its 150th birthday in style – and set its sights on a flourishing future in the face of increasing costs and cutthroat Chinese competition.

More than 200 people gathered at Birmingham Town Hall to celebrate 150 years of paper making in the city, with past and present employees, customers, suppliers, local residents and organisations all associated with the Smurfit Kappa SSK Paper Mill in Nechells.

The company was founded in 1862 by three Victorian entrepreneurs; Thomas Bird Smith, Sir John Benjamin Stone and Frederick Knight, and today plays a key role in providing local employment as well as reducing the city’s carbon footprint.

Almost 40,000 tonnes of paper and cardboard – recycled by Birmingham’s residents in their kerbside collection boxes or in Smurfit Kappa Recycling paper banks – is taken to the Nechells mill every year. The recovered paper and cardboard is then used by the mill as a raw material to make new packaging papers.

But the Nechells factory faces continuing pressures from increasing energy costs, mounting taxes – and a burgeoning Chinese paper industry. Operations director Paul Freeman, who has worked at Smurfit Kappa SSK for more than 20 years, said: “In the UK there were once over 100 paper mills and we are down to 40 now. There has been a huge amount of consolidation; there were several paper manufacturers in the West Midlands but we are the only ones left now.

“We have to be absolutely focused on costs. Energy is at an all-time high, water is at an all-time high and we are continually fighting against taxes and charges. You have carbon tax, landfill tax and water tax.

“All of these are increasing year on year. Meanwhile, the Chinese are here buying up waste paper.

“In the UK, we use 10 million tonnes of paper a year – we recover about eight million tonnes of it but we only have the capacity to process around four million tonnes of that. That leaves a balance and the Chinese paper industry has been expanding rapidly. They use agents in the UK to source and ship. This makes us short in the UK and when you are short, prices go up. Over the last five years the Chinese have been buying up half of the available material. But we are very proud to have been here for 150 years. We collect all the paper we need, we manufacture all the paper we need and we convert that paper into corrugated boxes.”

Sharon Lea, Strategic Director for Environment and Culture, Birmingham City Council, congratulated Smurfit Kappa SSK on reaching their 150th anniversary.

“Being able to recycle Birmingham paper and cardboard in Birmingham whilst creating local jobs for Birmingham people is a fantastic good news story for the city and that recycling continues to be a very important part of the council’s strategy to further reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill.

“Recent initiatives between the city council and Smurfit Kappa Recycling have targeted Birmingham schools to provide information and local recycling facilities to young people and work is starting to encourage local businesses to recycle waste paper and cardboard. “From 1993, when just 750 tonnes of paper was segregated for recycling, the relationship between both organisations had become increasingly important to the local economy and helping to reduce harmful greenhouse emissions.”

Today Smurfit Kappa SSK employs 110 people and produces 500-700 tonnes of packaging paper every day which is then converted into cardboard boxes by its customers. As well as the paper machine itself, the site contains two Combined Heat and Power plants (CHPs) which generate nearly all of the mill’s electrical demand.

A water treatment plant cleans the mill’s process water and produces methane gas to supplement the mill’s natural gas demand. The mill has become a net exporter of electricity to the national grid as a result of the installation of a gas engine which will generate power from the water treatment plant’s bio-gas.