Beyond Wood Tree-Free and Chlorine-Free Papers Offer Sound Alternatives to Forest Destruction

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as paper gluttons, but the average American consumes 681 pounds of the stuff every year, adding up to about six 30-year-old pine trees. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 29 percent of the wood fiber used in the U.S. goes to producing paper, and the industry consumes 12,430 square miles of forest per year.

beyond wood
The kenaf plant produces an excellent–and versatile–tree-free paper. Other sources include wheat straw and banana stalks. Photo: KP Products

Fortunately, there is something to be done about these sad and environmentally unsustainable statistics that doesn’t have to include going back to leaving messages on cave walls. From a tiny, backroom industry a few years ago, tree-free and chlorine-free papers are carving a larger and larger niche out of a market that, until very recently, saw no reason to mend its wasteful and-in the case of chlorine bleaching-dangerous ways.

Tree-free paper doesn’t-and shouldn’t-replace post-consumer waste paper. As Steve Baker of the GreenLine Paper Company puts it, “The recovery of post-consumer paper remains our most important challenge.” But most tree-free papers are, in any case, a blend of natural fibers and post-consumer waste.

Totally Chlorine-Free (TCF) paper is made in the U.S. by only one company, Lyons Falls Pulp and Paper in upstate New York. The company’s TCF stock-which is both white and bright-is competitively priced and has been adopted by 14 university presses, several printers and an increasing number of book publishers. Harcourt Brace uses Swedish-sourced TCF paper exclusively on the two million children’s books it produces annually. Another children’s book publisher, North-South Books, also uses European-sourced TCF.

Why is chlorine bleaching, used in the making of bright white paper, dangerous? Dioxin, a bleaching byproduct, is one of the most toxic environmental poisons, and wastewater containing it is discharged into rivers and streams by paper mills, creating what many residents describe as “cancer alleys” (see “The Dead Pigeon River,” Currents, May/June 1997).

Saving Trees

Because it can be rough-textured and brittle, not all tree-free paper is suitable for book publishers, or for copy machines. Some of the best and most versatile tree-free paper comes from the industrial fiber plant kenaf. Other agricultural products-including reclaimed waste-are also being sourced as raw material. Tree-free fiber sources are as diverse as the agricultural byproducts wheat straw, corn and banana stalks, and rye grass; wild reeds and grasses (including bamboo and esparto grass); and industrial waste like textile remnants and bagasse, a sugarcane processing product. Lyons Falls is even experimenting with a post-consumer paper made with fiber from used disposable diapers.

Although non-wood fibers are still a relatively untapped market in the industrialized world, the United Nations estimates they represent a third of paper production in developing countries. Because of drug fears, hemp remains banned for cultivation in the U.S., but hemp paper made from foreign-grown plants is already becoming popular here. Some 800,000 acres of industrial hemp are currently growing in the northern hemisphere. Hemp mills are being studied in Holland and Great Britain, and Germany recently legalized industrial hemp cultivation.

One of the most complete sources for tree-free paper is the Oregon-based Fiber Options Paper Company catalog. Owner Karen Wood points out that plants like kenaf produce four times as much fiber per acre per year as trees, and that the plants’ shorter fibers also make them more easily recyclable. “You can also recycle tree-free paper right along with your wood-based paper,” she says.

Fiber Options offers paper made from organic cotton (envelopes and letterhead, produced without using bleaches or dyes); kenaf (greeting cards, writing paper, stationery); blends of hemp, straw, cotton and flax (letterhead, copy paper); and bamboo (heavy paper and cardstock). Wood plans to add handmade Native American paper, created from a variety of fibers, next spring.

Fiber Options is also adding Arbokem paper from Canada, which uses pulped wheat straw (which is usually burned, creating pollution) as a base, combined with post-consumer waste. Arbokem’s Al Wong says his paper, which is usable in copy machines and computer printers, is price-competitive with the major paper chains at $5 a ream. “What’s the point of having hemp paper that no one can afford at 10 cents a sheet?” he asks. “I want to make an alternative fiber paper that is truly affordable.” Arbokem plans to market rice straw paper next year, with the raw material sourced from the 1.5 million tons burned annually by California farmers.

Going Bananas

Banana fiber paper is made from the plant’s stalk, a waste product that often clogs the rivers in which it is dumped. The paper now marketed in the U.S. by Costa Rica Natural Paper Company (Kinko’s copy stores have become a major customer) consists of five percent reclaimed banana fibers and 95 percent recycled post-consumer waste paper from El Salvador. A new café-au-lait-colored paper made from coffee waste just made its debut, and it should go well with Americans’ caffeine consciousness.

Baltimore-based Atlantic Earthworks uses banana paper to make a wide variety of notebooks, pads and writing sets. “You’re using an agricultural product that would otherwise be agri-waste,” says Beth Yensan, the company’s marketing director. She says that producers are working to increase the paper’s banana fiber content, and that it works well in copy machines and for most printing jobs. “You can see the banana fibers, but the paper is completely smooth to the touch,” Yensan adds.

Made By Loving Hands

The handmade paper industry has exploded in recent years, producing colorful, textured stationery and notecards that are works of art. The South Bronx, New York-based Sessile Paper makes its “burlap,” “chamomile,” “wheat germ,” “blueberry” and “red clover” paper from those everyday substances, mixing in “an amalgam of junk mail, tea boxes, paste packaging, berry containers, love notes, hate notes, letters begging for money, old IRS tax forms…egg cartons, soup boxes and personalized business stationery from fired workers (company names withheld).”

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World Paper products–like this flower petal design–are hand-made in Indian and Nepalese villages. Only renewable resource plant fibers are used. Photo: World Paper

Owner Andrei Kyryczenko says Sessile collects just about any kind of paper, separating it by color and type. “We found that blueprints will give you a really nice shade of blue,” says Kyryczenko, whose customers include Aveda and Boston Market. Chamomile comes from the company’s used teabags. “Making paper is like cooking,” Kyryczenko adds. “You follow a basic recipe, but then you add in whatever you want.”

World Paper products are also handmade, but in Indian and Nepalese villages, not in the South Bronx. The company was founded by Alexandra Soteriou, a former consultant with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and U.S. Aid for International Development, to help create a market for village-level craftsmanship. Papers are made only from renewable resource plant fibers, including jute, coconut husks and hemp, and scraps (including blue jeans) from clothing manufacturers. Decorative elements like grass and flowers are added, and because they sometimes detach, it makes the paper unsuitable (like other handmade designs) for use in laser printers and copy machines.

Rick Meis of Montana’s Treecycle Recycled Paper, which sells wheat straw paper along with many other TCF and recycled-content blends, cautions that “tree-free” is great if it doesn’t end up taking away the market for post-consumer recycled paper. “The companies that are combining post-consumer waste with alternative fibers are moving in the right direction,” he says.