Inviting a dialog with Woody Harrelson regarding “tree free” papers Go

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”.  

Sappi’s Cloquet, MN paper mill has partnered with the local community to put by-products to good use - as a soil amendment to help local farmers. 

This story is also featured in Volume 3 of our eQ Journal.

Introducing The eQ Journal #4 Go

You can view the view the new Journal online at

eQ Journal #4

Sappi shares the papermaker’s perspective on sustainable forestry Go

As an industry leader with decades of field experience and technical knowledge, we are compelled to show how sustainable forestry results in healthier forests and abundant wildlife

There is not a single matter related to papermaking that touches each of us as personally and emotionally as forestry.  Simply put – people love trees.  It is troubling that some people envision responsible paper manufacturer as engaging in deforestation when in fact, our suppliers are harvesting sustainability with a keen vigilance about promoting the regeneration that keeps forests thriving.  Forest management not only helps create habitats for animals that call woodlands home, but also ensures clean air, protected soil, better water quality and the promotion of biodiversity.

Explaining the benefits and values of a working forest is often a conversation that pits emotion against science.  While many people assume the best thing for a forest is to leave it in its natural state, few understand that variations in age class within a forest helps to promote biodiversity of both plant and animal species.

Management practices cover aspects from harvest planning and tree selection (or exemption) to road building and water protection.  Harvesting equipment has evolved to lessen residual damage from felling trees.  And depending on the type of environment where bunchers and other vehicles are used, there are lots of wheel options available that are light on the ground while providing just the right amount of soil disturbance to promote regrowth.  Roads are constructed with crowns, culverts and ditches to ensure proper drainage.  Stabilization and erosion protection are also added to skid trails.  Tree tops are also used on the trails which gets turned into mulch ultimately decomposing so the nutrients remain on site.

Of course, paper companies didn’t invent the concept of forest management.  As noted by Ross Korpela, Sappi’s senior wood procurement manager in Cloquet, MN, “Mother Nature has been managing forests forever”.  Natural occurrences such as fire, disease, insect infestations and high winds create landscape level events that lead to regeneration of younger forests.  But of course these events can also be highly destructive and costly to taxpayers.  In fact the USDA budgeted over $2 billion in 2012 for wildland fire management within the Forest Service budget.  Korpella adds, “Modern forest techniques mimic the gentler aspects of Mother Nature while providing the fiber to meet societies needs.  That means we are cutting trees in the manner nature intended.  The result is, we are creating better forests while also providing economic and environmental benefits to the entire population.

To learn more about sustainable forestry, aspects of ecology in managed forests, Sappi’s best practices and how the industry optimizes the use of the whole tree – visit to download or request a copy of our eQ Journal Issue 4: Taking the Guilt Out of Paper.

Selling pulp and paper products is our business. We strive to be a profitable, global leader within our industry, while being vigilant about using sustainably harvested wood with high levels of certification from the world’s most recognized programs: SFI®, PEFC and FSC®. Sappi does not promote wasteful consumption of resources—renewable or otherwise. We want our customers to use paper wisely and purposefully.
And we also want to create an understanding that one need not feel guilty about the impact on the forest when products are sourced responsibly. As an industry, we must strive to meet society’s needs for wood and paper products. But it is not just about meeting that demand—good forest management is about making forests better.

From the opening letter of our eQ Journal Volume 4

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Sustainability is not simply synonymous with environmentalism Go

It often seems that people have lost sight of the most basic definitions of sustainability. Sustainable development rests on three pillars: social, environmental and economic responsibility.

Andy Savitz, author of The Triple Bottom Line, writes:

"A sustainable corporation is one that creates profit for its shareholders while protecting the environment and improving the lives of those with whom it interacts."

When it comes to manufacturing, it is clear that stakeholders are mostly interested in environmental performance. But without a strong financial bottom line, companies do not have the resources to invest in driving significant social or environmental improvements. Indeed saving energy and reducing waste will often create quick returns. But to get beyond the low hanging fruit capital investments are required to really move the needle.

At Sappi Fine Paper North America, we recently invested $49 million to upgrade assets in the chemical recovery system at our Somerset Mill. These improvements increased energy efficiency and increased our ability to consume more black liquor, ultimately leading to a lower carbon footprint per ton of paper. The investment also qualified the facility to become Green-e certified. None of this work could have been completed without solid financial performance.

For more insights on the business case for sustainable development, I invite readers to check out our eQ Journal Volume 3.