A group of investors that includes actor Woody Harrelson is hoping to produce high-quality, eco-friendly paper from wheat and flax straw in southern Manitoba for the likes of Staples and Office Depot.
Their company, Prairie Pulp and Paper, has already produced small runs of its "tree-free, chlorine-free" paper with favourable results, and it's now ready to test its innovative process on a commercial scale.
Friday, it received a $400,000 shot in the arm from the provincial and federal governments to drum up business.
"The support of the provincial and federal governments will enable us to make the next leap to produce up to 200,000 sheets of paper for further testing with potential future customers," said Jeff Golfman, Prairie Pulp and Paper's president and co-founder.
"We've talked to the big boys (companies like Staples and Office Depot) and they're interested in our product," Golfman said.
If successful, the company plans to build North America's first commercial-scale non-wood pulp and paper mill in rural Manitoba. The facility would produce 200,000 tonnes of paper annually and employ 300 to 500 people. The company hasn't decided on an exact location for the plant except that it would be south of the Assiniboine River and west of the Red.
If the project gets off the ground -- something that should be decided within a year -- it could significantly reduce the annual problem of stubble burning near Winnipeg as farmers would have a market for their excess wheat straw.
"Using technology to produce paper products from agricultural byproducts is an exciting venture -- it's innovative, good for the environment, and creates new market opportunities for industry and farmers," Manitoba MP Candice Hoeppner said.
The company has invested about $4 million so far into the project, Golfman said. The $400,000 in government funding announced Friday brings total government investment in the initiative so far to nearly $1 million.
"This is not a slam-dunk by any means. This is an R & D project that hopes to become a commercialization project," Golfman said.
Harrelson, known as the dull-witted bartender on television's Cheers and for his starring role in such films as Natural Born Killers and The People vs. Larry Flynt, confirmed his interest in the initiative in a Free Press interview a decade ago, when the project was in its infancy.
-- With file from Murray McNeill