In the pulp and paper industry there appears to be a renewed interest in “alternative fibers” for use in paper. One recent article on this subject included a photo of Woody Harrelson (actor) with a caption that proclaimed “making paper from trees is barbaric”. With respect to Mr. Harrelson, I believe he has either been misquoted or is misinformed. Or perhaps, with a name like Woody, he has personified trees to an extent that he can no longer remain objective regarding sustainable forestry. To help advance this dialog I want to first clarify some terminology.
The term “tree free” paper is used for two different categories of products: synthetic “papers” and real papers made from sources other than trees.
On the one hand we have synthetic materials that are not made of fibers at all. They are printing substrates that look like paper - they are thin and white. And in some ways act like paper - they are flexible and you can print on them. But in most cases this group of products is actually pigmented polymer films or non-woven materials. In other words, they are not paper at all – they are made of plastic (the vast majority of which is derived from fossil fuels). In some applications (e.g. waterproof maps or outdoor signage) these might be the ideal substrates, but to call them paper products is somewhat confusing to say the least.
Beyond the synthetics, there are fibers not derived from trees that can be used to make paper. Generally speaking the alternative fiber category includes sources that are grown for fiber (like cotton or bamboo). There are also tree free sources that are derived as by-products from other processes – typically agricultural residues. For example bagasse is a by-product of sugar cane processing – and Mr. Harrelson’s passion reportedly lies in pursuing paper that is “currently made in India with 80 per cent waste wheat straw and 20 per cent wood fibers”.
In both cases – synthetics and alternative fibers – they are indeed “tree free” products, but I have yet to see any evidence that these products may have any environmental benefits over using wood. On the contrary - the evidence I have seen leads me to conclude quite the opposite.
There are many arguments to be made about the values and benefits of sustainably managed forests. If anyone has Mr. Harrelson’s contact information, please send him a link to our eQ Journal Volume 4. And I would be delighted to speak to him about efforts aimed at salvaging wood after a major wind event in the Lake States. Of course, beyond the forest, one must take a look at the environmental impacts associated with the manufacturing process.
The crux of the challenge faced by the paper industry is to develop a pulping process that can compete both economically and environmentally with wood pulping. This is a significant challenge that has been investigated for many, many years. Thus far, we have yet to find that magic bullet. With wood, we have a process where the chemicals are used and then recaptured, reprocessed and reused. Essentially a chemical recycling process within our pulp mills which creates advantages both environmentally and economically.
But with non-wood fibers, because of the composition of reedy plants the chemical recovery process cannot be closed the same way. It is possible to make pulp from these sources, but the environmental impact is greater.
It is not just industry experts that understand this challenge. The Chinese government has had a concerted effort underway for several years to close down mills that are not meeting environmental restrictions. Between 2005-2009 they established a modernization program that reportedly eliminated nearly 7 million tons/yr of pulp and paper capacity. Over half of these closures (measured in terms of volume) were targeted at non-wood pulp and paper mills. China’s strategy aims to use more efficient wood based and recycled fiber sources.
Today, the vast majority of non-wood fiber is made in China and India. And most of that fiber is consumed where it is produced. If a North American mill wants to import non-wood fiber, bamboo and bagasse sell for roughly twice the cost of market kraft pulp. Flax is about 6 times the cost. The availability of these sources is on the decline.
Again, with all due respect Mr. Harrelson, making paper from trees if far from barbaric - it makes good sense both environmentally and economically.
For more information on the ongoing efforts in China I encourage readers to seek out a translation of the “Twelfth Five Year Development Plan of the Paper Industry”.