WESTBROOK — Sappi is hoping a new line of casting paper made in Westbrook will help stimulate company sales, which have taken a hit from the coronavirus pandemic.

Sappi recently announced the launch of UltraCast Viva, a sustainable release paper that is made with fewer chemicals than older lines. Viva is used to provide textured surfaces to products, ranging from fake leathers for handbags to essential mattress covers for hospital beds, which are in high demand.

The majority of Sappi’s casting papers are sold in Asia, where the pandemic started, Mark Hittie, Sappi’s director of release business strategy, said in an interview.

Sappi reported May 7 that revenues from its pulp dissolving business and graphic paper sales are both down roughly 30% globally, with U.S. retail sales down 8.7% since the pandemic.

“It’s hitting different regions at different times. The coated fabric with casting (like Viva), that hit us in February but now that operation is back at 80%,” Hittie said. “In North America and Europe we are at peak impact, and in Latin America and South America that is two to three weeks behind the U.S. In Brazil we have a significant casting business and that pandemic is really starting to take shape there.”

The Westbrook mill was deemed an essential business, like other paper mills nationwide, and has been operating with safety precautions in place since the coronavirus outbreak began.

“The paper mills on a national basis are declared essential assets in large part because the materials pulp (for hospital gowns) and paper contribute to support(ing) the medical industry, and in release paper (like Viva), it’s mattress covers that we have been able to support in that regard,” Hittie said.

While Sappi would not share how much of their workforce or what percentage of their operations focus on casting paper and Viva, Hittie said staffing levels have not changed with the new line.

In response to the pandemic Sappi has implemented safety measures and is working with the union on them.

“We understand how difficult it is to get through this, it’s a new thing for everyone,” said Ronald Rondeau, president of United Steelworkers Local 1069, which represents Sappi workers in Westbrook. 

“Like all places, it was a bit shaky at first. We were low on things like hand sanitizermasks, they were in short supply just like everywhere else, but Sappi purchased that and got them out,” he said.

Every employee has a temperature screening at the door, he said, and they are asked to wear masks if they can’t socially distance. Quarantines are mandatory for traveling or sick employees, as workers who are sick or who have sick family members are asked to report that and stay home. In addition, there are consistent deep cleanings.

“It can still be tough. It’s an older mill and some of these people are working shoulder to shoulder. We are all still figuring things out,” Rondeau said.

Of the 12,800 Sappi employees worldwide there have been 15 reported cases of coronavirus, including two infected workers based in Westbrook.

The Westbrook mill is shutting down for a scheduled work “curtailment” on Memorial Day. It will reopen June 1, Rondeau said.

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