The Paper Chase

According to The Myth of the Paperless Office, a company’s use of e-mail causes an average 40 percent increase in paper consumption. The demand for ream after ream of white paper is putting a huge strain not only on America’s forests, but the world"s. And it’s forcing the environmental movement to consider the alternatives.


The U.S. currently gobbles up some 200 million tons of wood products annually, with consumption increasing by four percent every year. The pulp and paper industry is the biggest culprit. U.S. paper producers alone consume one billion trees—or 12,430 square miles of forests—every year, while producing 735 pounds of paper for every American.

The U.S. has less than five percent of the world’s population, but consumes 30 percent of the world’s paper. Only five percent of America’s virgin forests remain, while 70 percent of the fiber consumed by the pulp and paper industry continues to be generated from virgin wood. While logging controversies most often center around the Pacific Northwest, most of the wood pulp used for paper in the U.S. actually comes from southern forests, currently home to some of the greatest biodiversity in the continental U.S. (see sidebar).

Worldwide, global consumption of wood products has risen 64 percent since 1961. The industry expects that demand will double by 2050, keeping pace with population growth. Recycling has helped, but has not yet made an appreciable difference. "Recycling has yet to dent the world’s appetite for virgin-fiber pulp," says the Worldwatch Institute.

In Indonesia, the pulp and paper industry is destroying rainforest so quickly that it will run out of wood by 2007, according to a report by Friends of the Earth. An area the size of Belgium is wiped out annually. Only 10 percent of the trees cut down for paper in Indonesia are farmed, although the industry had supposedly committed to replanting its clear-cuts with fast-growing acacia trees.

Globally, pulp for paper and other uses is taking an increasing share of all wood production, from 40 percent in 1998 to nearly 60 percent over the next 50 years. In the same time span, easily accessible and inexpensive sources of wood are disappearing. Because of the rapid consumption of virgin forests in places as far apart as Canada and Southeast Asia, forest restoration has not been able to keep pace with the demand for wood products.

Toxic Pollution and Waste

Loss of forests isn’t the only issue. Deforestation has released an estimated 120 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the major global warming gas, into the atmosphere. The pulp and paper industry is the third-largest industrial polluter in both Canada and the U.S., releasing more than 220 million pounds of toxic pollution into the air, ground and water each year.

Much of that pollution is the byproduct of the three million tons of chlorine used annually to bleach wood pulp white. Chlorine bleaching is a major source of the potent carcinogen dioxin, which is routinely discharged into rivers and streams with wastewater. As a result, dioxin is now ubiquitous in our environment, found throughout the world in air, water, soil and food. Every woman alive today carries some trace of dioxin in her breast milk. Dioxin is considered one of the most toxic substances ever produced, and has been known to cause cancer, liver failure, miscarriage, birth defects and genetic damage in laboratory animals.

The U.S. paper industry has been aware of the dioxin problem since at least 1985, but has been very slow to act on alternatives (see sidebar). In Europe, chlorine bleaching is being phased out. That has only been proposed in the U.S., despite the fact that the American Public Health Association strongly supports a phase-out. In Sweden, pulp mills have to meet stringent standards, and were required to reduce chlorine content by 90 percent as early as 1993. When they have to, American companies such as Proctor and Gamble can go virtually chlorine-free: The Pampers exported to Sweden, for example, are made without a chlorine-bleaching process, unlike those wrapping U.S. babies.

Paper is also the dominant material in solid waste. And in the United States, paper-producing companies are the third-largest energy consumer, with a pace that keeps quickening.

It’s not surprising that, given all these environmental negatives, the paper industry would wrap itself in a green mantle. International Paper, for instance, issued a Sustainability Report in 2002 that cites its role as "among the largest owners of sustainably managed private forestland in the world." Its raw material is trees, the report says, "the world’s greatest renewable resource." It participates in forest certification programs and voluntary partnerships and strictly adheres to environmental regulations. And according to the American Forest and Paper Association, U.S. papermakers recycle enough paper every day to fill a 15-mile-long train of boxcars. Since 1990, the recovered paper would fill 200 football stadiums to a height of 100 feet.

While some of this is undoubtedly greenwashing, Michael Klein, a spokesperson for the American Forest and Paper Association, asserts that the industry is currently using all the recycled paper it can get. "I have a problem with activists who say we have to demand more recycled content," Klein says. "Instead, they should demand that people recycle more. One hundred percent of the paper and boxed fiberboard people put on the curb is used." Paper activists point out, however, that a significant amount of U.S.-generated recyclable paper is actually exported. Nearly a quarter of the recovered paper in the U.S. is shipped to Mexico, Canada, Asia and Europe rather than being recycled here, reports Conservatree.

Tree-Free Paper: Great Expectations

There is vast potential for a "green" paper industry, including recycled and natural fibers, that could not only spare trees but also produce paper with minimal environmental impact overall, but it needs an infusion of both public interest and research funding. It is presently, at best, a $20 million sales niche in a $230 billion U.S. industry, asserts the San Francisco-based Fiber Futures, which lobbies for expanded use of agricultural residues and other tree-free materials for paper. A plan by the Natural Resources Defense Council to open a paper recycling plant in the Bronx, New York ended tragically because of labor opposition and last-minute political maneuvering, which thwarted financing. Many small and medium-sized paper mills that handled tree-free papers have closed because of industry consolidation and the economic downturn, sending many paper manufacturers overseas for sources of pulp.

But despite these market setbacks, research continues to offer strong evidence that non-wood fibers can be used for large-scale paper production in North America. And tiny demonstration projects have been very successful, while full-scale mills are moving forward overseas. According to Fiber Futures, a dedicated wheat straw pulp mill is being built in Turkmenistan.

Progress is arriving incrementally. In Canada, the so-called Markets Initiative, with support from several major nonprofit groups and linked to the U.S.-based Green Press Initiative, has persuaded 67 Canadian book publishers to buy their paper from forest-friendly sources. The Harry Potter books printed in Cana

da are among the converts.

Meanwhile, paper activists are mobilizing. In late 2002, 75 members of more than 50 environmental groups from around the world gathered together to promote what they called "an environmentally and socially sustainable paper production system." The Environmental Paper Summit promotes collaborations on the use of environmentally friendly papers, and is planning outreach to progressive paper purchasers (including social justice groups and labor unions), producers and suppliers—all in an effort to change paper consumption habits.

The Environmental Paper Summit’s steering committee included Conservatree, the Center for a New American Dream, Co-op America, Dogwood Alliance, Environmental Defense, Forest Ethics, the Green Press Initiative, Markets Initiative, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Recycled Products Purchasing Cooperative. The process resulted in a Common Vision document that has already been signed by more than 80 nonprofit groups and corporations.

"We’re trying to stimulate demand for recycled paper," says Susan Kinsella, executive director of Conservatree. "Environmental groups needed to express a common mission so that it would be clear the market will be there. We realized we’re all in it together, and the process created tremendous camaraderie." A new push is desperately needed, because consumers have become complacent, and big potential purchasers have become worried about steady sources of recycled paper. Recycled fiber content slid from a high of 10 percent in the early 1990s to a current rate of less than five percent.

The Common Vision endorses kenaf and hemp production "if life-cycle analysis and other comprehensive and credible analyses indicate that they are environmentally and socially preferable to other sources of virgin fiber." Kinsella says recycled paper "needs to be the bottom line," but she also sees a need to increase non-wood production.

This view is common in the environmental community. Evan Paul, a Forest Ethics paper campaigner, says, "While it’s better to be growing kenaf instead of logging, we want to really look at the whole life cycle of natural fibers. We’re not sure of the full impact when it includes clearing land and using pesticides." Paul is, however, bullish on the use of existing agricultural waste in papermaking, including corn and rice husks. "But," he adds, "There hasn’t been a lot of development in that field, either."

One such tree-free waste paper is made from 100 percent bagasse fiber, left over from sugar cane production. According to Reprograph’s Erik Sanudo, the new Propal paper line was launched in 2003 and hopes to find uses in stores and offices for notepads and cash register rolls. Kimberly-Clark also uses bagasse in paper towels and tissues.

The Common Vision also calls for "responsible fiber sourcing" that cuts down on virgin wood fiber use, ends the use of wood products from endangered forests, and asks for a moratorium on turning natural ecosystems into monocrop wood plantations (see sidebar).

All of this activity strikes many in the paper industry as beside the point. "We think finding a replacement for wood fiber is a problem that does not need to be solved," John Mechem of the Washington-based American Forest and Paper Association told Well Journal. "Our group is not necessarily opposed to kenaf. In fact, some of our members have tried—and may still be trying—to make it work."

Reviving a Movement

The new movement could spur a process that has slowed after some promising developments. In 1996, widespread protests against logging operations—and memories of the severe 1994 price hike for pulp—prompted some publishers to investigate alternatives to tree-based paper. With the cooperation of seven newspapers, Al Wong of Arbokem developed a test newsprint that was 68 percent de-inked old newspapers, 12 percent thermo-mechanical wood pulp (which is crushed with grinders using steam at high pressures and temperatures), 11 percent ryegrass straw pulp, six percent rice straw pulp and three percent red fescue straw pulp. Some 200 tons of this mixed-origin newsprint were produced and test-printed at the such newspapers as the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury-News and the Sacramento Bee.

The experiment was successful. Sue Dorchak, quality-assurance manager at the Mercury-News, says her company had evaluated the agri-fiber’s strength, appearance, runability and ability to take ink, and found only a tiny difference. She said the newspaper was both "enthused and optimistic," but the experiment was not repeated (despite projections that the agri-pulp for newsprint would actually be cheaper than wood pulp product at a certain scale).

Both hemp and kenaf offer excellent possibilities for use as a virgin fiber replacement in newsprint, which tends to carry a high recycled content. Kenaf was first used in a print run by the Peoria Journal Star in 1977, after the federal Agricultural Research Service (ARS), based in Peoria, laid the groundwork through technological feasibility studies. ARS proclaimed kenaf to be its top alternative fiber candidate for pulp and papermaking. The American Newspaper Publishers Association became interested in kenaf and produced a feasibility study in 1981. A joint venture company, Kenaf International, was also formed at that time.

Unfortunately, once the efficacy of kenaf for newsprint was demonstrated in Illinois, ARS effectively moved on to other projects. Picking up the ball was the Kenaf Demonstration Project, which created some well-traveled kenaf for test purposes: It was grown in Texas (through the support of then-Congressman Kika de la Garza), pulped in Ohio, made into newsprint in Quebec and shipped to California, Texas and Florida for printing. Hard work by a number of dedicated advocates kept the dream of kenaf paper alive until the groundbreaking 1996 newspaper experiment.

It’s uncertain if the newspaper experiments will continue. Partly because newsprint (which does not face critical strength and brightness issues) already contains more than 50 percent recycled content, Arbokem and other companies now focus on other paper markets, particularly those (including writing paper and bright white boxboard) that currently uses high amounts of virgin fiber.

The advantages of alternative fiber paper are many. "Under favorable conditions, kenaf can be several times more productive than trees on a per-acre basis," says fibers expert E.L. Whitely. "Kenaf dry material could be produced at about half the cost per unit of producing pulpwood." Kenaf paper can also be produced without chlorine bleaching, advocates say. A Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry (TAPPI) study called "A Search for New Fiber Crops" demonstrated that alternative fibers require less energy and chemical use in processing than standard wood sources. According to the "Using Less Wood" fact sheet, energy use can be cut by 30 percent in the mechanical pulp and refining process with alternative fibers.

The environmental website Ecomall reports that one acre of hemp can produce as much usable fiber as four acres of trees. It adds that hemp paper is longer lasting than wood pulp, stronger, and both acid- and chlorine-free. Hemp advocates point out that hemp-based paper can be recycled seven times, v

ersus only four for wood pulp.

There is the potential for large-scale commercialization of tree-free paper, but there remain a number of obstacles, many of them agricultural. As Daniel Kugler’s report "Non-Wood Fiber Crops" demonstrates, a major barrier is the lack of processing plants and commercial-scale agricultural equipment. Many of the test plots have been harvested using equipment borrowed from other industries, including sugar cane and cotton. But kenaf harvesters have been built and tested. These problems would be easily overcome if the industry were focused on them.

Converting the paper pulping industry to tree-free raw material would be a Herculean effort. Worldwide, just 10 percent of all paper pulp comes from non-wood sources; in the U.S. the figure is less than a paltry one percent. In part because the paper industry has an enormous investment in wood as a raw material, there is little momentum today.

Jeanne Trombly, founder of Fiber Futures, says that, despite the huge amount of agricultural waste produced here, there are currently no commercial non-wood pulp mills in the United States. With the exception of one small plant that pulps U.S. currencies for remanufacture as paper, all non-wood pulp is imported. Industrial hemp is illegal to grow in the U.S. (but legal in Canada). It is in such heavy demand from small manufacturers that a thriving industry exists to, for example, grow it in Hungary and process it in Italy.

"The paper industry in the United States is at a crossroads," Trombly says. "The traditional companies are floundering and contracting, but there’s still not much enthusiasm for applying research and development money to innovative non-woods. It’s a stubborn allegiance to the wood-based models that have brought the industry to where it is today." Trombly points out that the strong fiber produced by hemp and kenaf blends well with the weaker post-consumer recycled paper.

At a recent University of Washington conference on the future of the paper industry, two of four student presentations focused on pulping wheat straw. "It was wonderful to see," Trombly says, "but the paper and pulp executives in attendance were very discouraging, claiming that the technology is too expensive, or that while it may work technically, it "just doesn’t work for us.""

Al Wong, a Vancouver, Canada-based pioneer who markets his own uncoated "Downtown Paper #3" for the California market, has learned the hard way that the paper business is not immediately receptive to new ideas. But Wong’s story is one of inspiring perseverance. In 1993, Wong’s company, Arbokem, designed and built a demonstration-size pulp mill in Alberta, Canada that used wheat straw, an agricultural waste that would otherwise be burned, as its basic "feedstock." With the addition of longer-fiber pulp from other sources, wheat straw is an effective base for newsprint.

The mill’s first pulp was produced in 1994, but the operation encountered both technical problems and sales resistance on the part of potential buyers. The mill tried out a variety of agricultural residues, including California rice straw, Oregon ryegrass, Washington State bluegrass, and flax straw from Manitoba. In 1999, the mill made a permanent change to exclusive use of organically grown cereal straw.

Agricultural waste remains an enormously promising resource for papermaking. Meanwhile, both hemp and kenaf offer a sound alternative to virgin fiber, leaving the world’s fast-disappearing forests intact.

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