Pulp Friction: Debating the Paper Alternatives

Hemp- and kenaf-based paper, often made with imported pulp, is now widely used in environmental circles, but there are a fair number of dissenters. Rick Meis of Treecycle Recycled Paper recently asked if such non-wood fibers are not simply taking the place of high post-consumer-content sheets in the marketplace. “What is happening is not the substitution of hemp and kenaf papers for paper made from trees, but the substitution of alternative fiber paper for recycled paper,” he says. “Many people who want to buy hemp paper are those very people who would otherwise be using high post-consumer recycled.”

paper alternatives
Should green groups focus on increasing the rate of recycled paper? © PHOTOS TO GO

These arguments arise because alternative fibers and recycled paper are competing in a small (and apparently shrinking) marketplace. The Recycled Paper Coalition points out that the U.S. is the single largest generator and consumer of recovered paper in the world. In 1997, American paper mills consumed nearly 40 million tons of recovered paper. But the rate of recovery (at 45 percent then) stagnated because of sharp increases in paper production. As E reported in the March/April issue, recycling is increasing in volume but shrinking as an overall percentage of the waste stream. The paper picture is particularly bleak: According to Resource Recycling, only five percent of the printing and writing-grade paper fiber in use as of 2002 was recycled, down from 10 percent in the early 1990s. Dozens of recycled paper mills and deinking plants have closed.

A broader market for both recycled and alternative fiber papers would stop such cannibalization of customers. But the arguments are likely to continue in environmental circles. Eric Degner, owner of Treecycle, says, “We’re not really against kenaf or hemp, but we believe in promoting use of recycled instead because we are currently landfilling tons of white paper. Rather than grow kenaf or hemp that will deplete the soil and replace forests, why not recycle the paper we’re throwing away?” Post-consumer recycled paper, he says, reduces land use; does not require water, fertilizers or pesticides; and is less environmentally costly to make.

But Tim Hermach, executive director of the Eugene, Oregon-based Native Forest Council, defends the hemp and kenaf paper industry. “Even if we were using 100 percent recycled paper we’d still be killing trees, because recycled paper is tree-based,” he says. “In China, 80 percent of paper is tree-free.” Hermach adds that 120 years ago, U.S. paper was mainly made from non-tree sources, and that “wood fiber has to be the lowest and worst possible use of a tree.”

Tim Keating, who co-founded Rainforest Relief in 1989 and still heads the group, makes the opposite argument. He calls alternative fibers, or what he calls “on-purpose crops,” a “waste of agricultural land and resources. The answer to our problems is not more mechanized farming to grow kenaf or hemp.”

Keating wants the environmental movement to unite around, and demand the use of, recycled paper. He describes an unfortunate timeline: “By 1990, we’d convinced the paper industry to make massive investments in deinking and recycled pulp, but then the environmental movement disappeared on that issue. There was no follow-up, just when we needed the groups to go to their membership and call on them to stop using virgin paper. So the paper industry threw up its hands, saying, “We invested $500 million in recycled paper and demand is waning.” I wouldn’t blame the industry for calling us all idiots. We took them to the edge of using high recycled-content paper, then we walked away.”

According to Keating, the movement was distracted by alternative fibers. “Instead of getting the industry to jump on post-consumer paper, we decided to shift entirely,” he says. “There was a bubble of campaigning around kenaf and hemp between 1994 and 1996. Groups like Rainforest Action Network (RAN) were convincing grassroots organizers to use kenaf letterhead, for example.” RAN is still supportive of kenaf, which it declares “an excellent wood replacement [producing] several times more paper per acre than tree farms and requiring less chemical processing.” RAN is hemp-friendly as well, and supports the use of agricultural waste to produce high-quality, competitively priced paper.

Forestry practices are changing, with ever-shorter growth cycles. What had been a 40-year cycle for Douglas fir is now often a seven-year cycle for eucalyptus or other fast-growing species. Keating believes that if environmentalists push the industry into a corner by advocating kenaf, the paper giants would shrug their collective shoulders, then clear-cut their vast forest holdings for one-year-cycle kenaf. “As environmentalists, we want to use an annual rotation crop for paper, but we want to buy it from farmers,” Keating says. “But that isn’t what would actually happen, given the huge paper company land investments. I think, instead, we have to promote the use of agricultural residue instead of virgin fiber, and refuse to accept on-purpose crops.”

Michael Klein, a spokesperson for the American Forest and Paper Association, agrees that a groundswell of interest in kenaf would not preserve trees. “Kenaf is not grown in anywhere near sufficient quantities to meet the demand for paper,” he says. “But if the public demanded it you’d see the wholesale conversion of forests to row crops.”

In the kind of formulation beloved of paper industry spokespeople, Klein notes that there are more trees in America today than at any time since the 1920s, and that we’re currently at parity with 1630. There were a billion acres of forest then, he says, and now there’s 747 million acres. “Ultimately, if you’re using paper you’re preserving the long-term sustainability of forests,” he says. “You’re saying you value wood and you want us to keep growing it.”

Needless to say, Tom Rymsza of Vision Paper, a dedicated kenaf promoter and entrepreneurial producer, sees the issues somewhat differently. “I think we have to get into the non-wood sector in a big way,” he says. “The population is growing and so is the demand for paper. The industry’s response is to grow trees faster, and that ends up manipulating the natural environment so that we end up with problems like the pine beetle [see sidebar] and the gypsy moth. It’s taking the natural cycle and throwing it out of balance. The whole paradigm of cutting trees to make paper has a limited lifespan. Some 75 pulp and paper mills have closed in the last five years, and that’s partly because of foreign competition—Asian producers have much lower land and labor costs, without environmental regulations.”

The kenaf industry wants to take paper-making away from loggers and hand it over to the kinds of farmers who are now leaving the land in droves. Instead of paper being made by large international conglomerates, they see it being made by family farmers, people with an investment in the community and kids in the schools. “It will be a low-input crop,” says Rymsza. “It doesn’t need much in the way of pesticides and herbicides because bugs don’t bug it, and it outcompetes most weeds.”

There is evidence to back up Rymsza’s claims. There are 60 to 65 million acres of farmland idled every year in the U.S., at a taxpayer expense of $15 billion. As Maureen Smith argues in her book The U.S.

Paper Industry and Sustainable Production (MIT Press), “the subsidy-reducing potential of alternative cash fiber crops is equally compelling.”

Obviously, it’s a noble goal to produce environmentally friendly paper fiber on a local scale, preserve trees and keep farmers on the farm. The trick is making it actually come out that way.