Kenaf, a long-fiber plant that originated in the East Indies and is grown in the U.S., Thailand and China, is a relative of okra and cotton that is now making inroads as a wood substitute. The earliest-known kenaf production was in 4000 B.C., and the plant has traditionally been used in the making of rope, sacking, twine and matting. Research on the plant began in the U.S. during World War II, when supplies of jute were interrupted. Kenaf was part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Search for New Pulp Fibers program in the 1950s. According to the group Conservatree, kenaf was determined by the USDA to be "the best option for tree-free papermaking in the U.S."
The kenaf plant flowers at the end of the growing season, leaving a seed pod behind. The pod needs up to 90 days of frost-free weather to germinate, so it rarely survives, a factor that reduces kenaf’s ability to spread and become an invasive weed. After harvest, the whole kenaf plant is processed in a fiber separator similar to a cotton gin. Kenaf can yield six to 10 tons of dry fiber per acre in four or five months of growing time, and its advocates point out that this is approximately double the hemp yield.
The USDA revived its interest in the fiber with the aforementioned Kenaf Demonstration Project in 1986, and important advances were made in adapting the plant for modern commercial uses (including increasing its fungi tolerance). The Mississippi Kenaf Project was inaugurated in 1989. A 200-ton per-day kenaf mill was established in Thailand around this same time. American kenaf supporters were dealt a blow in 1998, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture substantially reduced its kenaf research funding, after more than 40 years of trials and $13 million in funding since 1987. It remains under intensive study in Japan, which lacks forest resources. More than 1,000 Japanese middle schools grow and study the plant each year.
Among the companies that have used kenaf in their catalogs and other paper products are Apple, Sony, Warner Brothers, The Nature Company, The Gap, Esprit International and Birkenstock. Motorola and Disney have printed corporate environmental reports on kenaf paper. Several books have been printed on kenaf, including David Brower’s Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run (HarperCollins). Earth Island Journal was the first magazine to be printed on kenaf paper, though that is no longer the case.
Kenaf could become a major fiber crop in the U.S., but efforts to establish a dedicated newsprint pulp mill for it have so far stalled because of inadequate financing. Conservatree points out that kenaf cultivation "can bring new life to rural economies shattered by the demise of their original industries." In one such case, 40 kenaf-growing jobs were created in rural and economically depressed Tallahatchie County, Mississippi.
In 1994, the United Nations reported that kenaf was produced on about 500,000 acres worldwide, but there is considerable room for expansion. The largest producer today is China, with around 150,000 acres under cultivation. (U.S. acreage was only about 10,000 to 15,000 acres in 2003, and there is also some kenaf cultivation in Spain.) According to the 1996 report "Underexploited Temperate Industrial and Fiber Crops" by Richard Roseberg, "The potential area of U.S. kenaf cultivation could be as great as five million acres." The report says that in areas particularly well suited to kenaf cultivation, such as the southeastern U.S., kenaf could yield three to five times more annual fiber than southern pine. "Increasing demand for fiber for all applications should improve the economic conditions affecting kenaf development," Roseberg wrote.
One of the strongest advocates for kenaf paper in the U.S. is Vision Paper, which planted its first experimental kenaf plots in 1990 and began producing tree-free paper in 1992. By 1996, Vision Paper was the only producer of tree-free paper in the U.S., with a crop of 2,000 acres. "Kenaf will become the main papermaking material," predicts Vision Paper founder Tom Rymsza. "Trees don’t grow fast enough and we need to bring new life to rural communities."
Vision Paper has been able to overcome several production hurdles, including the need for chlorine bleaching and pesticides. Its paper is chlorine-free (using a hydrogen peroxide bleaching process) and is grown without any insecticides. The company points out that because kenaf is grown for its fibrous stalk rather than for its fruit or flowers, it can eliminate the need for chemicals. There is some pollution associated with the chemical kraft process used to produce pulp from kenaf, though it is substantially less pollution than that of virgin wood pulping.
Vision Paper has completed a feasibility plan to build a kenaf processing plant in the U.S., and Rymsza says that such a plant could be operating within three years of financing. He firmly believes that kenaf could replace wood-based paper in the U.S., "though such a process would take 20 or 30 years. My view is that there is ample available acreage to grow kenaf," he says. "The U.S. has 80 million idle agricultural acres."
In 2004, Rymsza sees a paper industry in crisis. That presents an opportunity for the kenaf community to make common ground with the paper industry unions, which are losing jobs rapidly to overseas competition. "I just met with the Paper and Allied Chemical Workers, and I get a sense that the large paper producers are giving up on wood pulp from the U.S. and moving their business to countries that don’t have sustainable protection. I think the industry is a dinosaur using outdated models."
Industrial hemp and marijuana are the same basic plant, but commercial varieties have a very low percentage of marijuana’s active ingredient, THC, and thus no conceivable use as a drug. Nonetheless, industrial hemp, which was Kentucky’s largest cash crop until 1915, fights an uphill battle today largely because of its unwarranted association with drugs in a highly anti-drug climate. Although High Times subscribers may constitute a cheering section for legalizing hemp, some hemp advocates see such allies as actually hurting the cause because they make the marijuana connection explicit.
Hemp is an extremely versatile product with a long history, and like kenaf has been cultivated since ancient times. The first paper sheets (circa 105 A.D. in China) were believed to have been made of hemp fiber. Hemp thus predates the use of wood for paper. Presidents Washington and Jefferson both grew hemp, though claims the Declaration of Independence was printed on it are hyperbole.
Beginning in 1840, American-grown hemp was used to make manila paper. Hemp cultivation has been illegal in the U.S. since the end of the Second World War, but its cultivation is encouraged in 29 countries around the world. The American hemp movement got started 30 years ago when Jack Herer wrote a landmark book on the many uses for hemp, The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Today, hemp cultivation is still illegal in the U.S., and it is grown mostly in western and eastern Europe, Russia, South Asia and Canada. Hemp is a very strong fiber, making it excellent for paper processing with post-consumer waste, and it is also easily bleached with chlorine-free materials.
Support for hemp’s reintroduction as a source of fiber is growing, partly because hemp products
made from exclusively imported fiber are now a $200 million business in North America. Vermont’s Senate has passed a resolution urging the decriminalization of industrial hemp, and the state became the 11th to pass a resolution in favor of the fiber. Several states (including Maryland, Hawaii, North Dakota and Minnesota) have actually authorized production, though the federal ban takes precedence. Hemp advocates cheered after a federal appeals court decision in February that turned back Drug Enforcement Administration efforts to stop the sale of hemp-based food products.
Dennis Carlson, a wheat farmer in Bismarck, North Dakota who is facing declining prices for his crop, is one of an increasing number of growers who would like to see hemp legalized. "We’re all desperate," he told the New York Times. "We’re trying to find something that will change our outlook, and hemp is one of many crops." American farmers are watching their Canadian neighbors reap profits from hemp, and they want a piece of the action.
Hemp’s revival even in the absence of a domestic supply of pulp is inspiring. According to a 1999 report, the biomass yield of a hemp plantation and a pine plantation are essentially comparable over a 15-year period.
The Boulder Hemp Initiative Project estimates that hemp paper could become a $15 to $30 billion annual industry worldwide. At present, about 20 paper mills around the world use hemp fiber, with an estimated annual world production volume (mostly in India and China) of 120,000 tons, which is about .05 percent of all paper.
Because of its low production volumes, hemp pulp remains much more expensive than wood fiber ($2,100 per ton versus $800 per ton), but larger-scale production would bring those costs down. Hemp paper can be efficiently bleached with hydrogen peroxide, resulting in a totally chlorine-free (TCF) end product. More than 50 percent of the waste can be separated through a centrifugal process, and it is almost completely biodegradable. Non-woods like hemp contain a fourth as much lignin (the glues and sugars that are in all plant material) as wood, and that means less chemical and energy demand when the fiber is pulped, reports Living Tree Paper.
Living Tree, based in Eugene, Oregon, mixes industrial hemp and flax fibers with recycled office paper to yield a tree-free ream that retails for $6.99, not an enormous price premium over single sales of $5 tree-based copy paper.
Drawbacks to using hemp for paper include its great biological differences with wood, making it a poor material for existing large-scale paper mills. This problem has been addressed with unique pulping methods called organosolv (breaking the fiber down with concentrated acetic acid or ethanol) and bio-pulping (using fungi in place of synthetic chemicals).
Forest Ethics focuses on convincing large paper retailers to stock tree-free alternatives. A recent campaign against Staples, the largest office superstore chain, pointed out that the company’s paper sales were "driving the destruction of our endangered forests worldwide, including in U.S. National Forests, the forests of the Southeast, and old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest." The campaign urges the company to phase out all paper made from old-growth fiber, and to "make available paper made from agricultural fiber in all stores or other points of sale."
As a likely result of the campaign, Staples said in late 2002 that it would increase its stocks of recycled and tree-free paper and cut back on old-growth products. Staples briefly carried Living Tree Paper hemp and flax paper, which Living Tree’s Carolyn Moran then described as "huge for us." But the arrangement with the office products giant soon ended because Staples agreed to increase the post-consumer content of its paper to 30 percent overall, reducing its emphasis on non-wood sources. "We were actually satisfying their minimum weekly sales volume," Moran says, adding that the company’s decision to stock many of its own private labels put shelf space at a premium. "Customer response was low and the price was relatively high," counters Staples spokesperson Owen Davis.
In March, another activist target, mega-retailer Office Depot, announced that it was forming a "conservation alliance" with three groups, NatureServe, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy.
"Our next battle is with the catalog industry," says Nancy Hurwitz, project director of ReThink Paper, which works in coalition with groups such as Forest Ethics and the Dogwood Alliance. Forest Ethics, which launched its catalog campaign last year, points out that American retailers send out 17 billion catalogs annually, and 95 percent of them are discarded unread. Very few catalogs have recycled content.
In what turned out to be a temporary development, Kinko’s announced that it would dedicate a special "green machine" copier at each of its locations. In March 2003, however, Kinko’s announced a new Sustainable Forest-Based Products Policy, developed in consultation with Rainforest Action Network (RAN), that promises no use of old-growth or endangered forest fibers and increased use of tree-free papers. Some Kinko’s stores sell Neenah paper partially made from tree-free fibers, and all offer 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper—but you have to ask.
With activism against the use of old-growth timber increasingly finding receptive ears, and the already embattled paper industry suffering the double trouble of low pulp prices and devastating insect infestations on their southern plantations, the time would seem to be propitious for a revival of natural fibers. While they’re unlikely to say so, the paper giants listen when the environmental movement presents a united front (backed by the threat of boycotts) and offers a feasible plan for combining recycling with increased use of hemp, kenaf and other fibers.