With demand for paper expected to double by 2010 and the attendant impact on the world’s forests, the search is beginning for alternative sources of paper pulp.
The use of trees for paper is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the mid-19th century, cotton, hemp, straw, and other fibers were used in paper making.
Now, because of deforestation and the high cost of wood pulp, a number of countries are turning back to other sources of fiber. In 1992, 45 countries produced tree-less paper, accounting for 9 percent of the world’s paper supply. Studies have found that these plant-fiber processes are significantly less expensive than wood-pulp paper making.
The primary alternatives currently used in the US are hemp and kenaf (rhymes with giraffe) plant fibers. Kenaf grows well in areas where cotton or tobacco are cultivated. Hemp is prolific in both temperate and tropical climates. Both grow exceedingly fast, producing a full grown plant from seed in 5-6 months, and are naturally disease-resistant. They are nitrogen fixers, and work well in a crop rotation. Both plants produce fibers that far exceed tree fibers in length and strength. As a result, these papers can go through the recycling process many more times than wood-based paper without losing quality. Hemp and kenaf papers both have a natural whiteness which can be enhanced by hydrogen peroxide rather than chlorine bleach.
The drawback to using kenaf, hemp and other agricultural by-products is that they must be stored and transported seasonally, unlike wood, which is available year round. Also, the moisture content of hemp and kenaf is much higher than wood, and special drying systems must be developed in order to prevent spoilage. This problem has been successfully addressed in China, where concrete drying racks have been created for this purpose.
It is still unclear whether tree-free paper in its current state will meet the highest production printing standards. Hopeful indications include the successful printing of a section of the Earth Island Journal’s Summer 1993 issue on kenaf paper. Also, the US Department of Agriculture is beginning to use kenaf paper.
Tree-free paper is just becoming available to the North American consumer. Kinko’s Copies is exploring the viability of paper that is 50 percent hemp and 50 percent straw. Meanwhile, you can buy a ream of kenaf paper for $14.00 from the Greenpeace Catalog, 800/916-1616, or choose from a selection of kenaf and hemp papers from the Earthcare Paper Company, 800/347-0700.
This article was based on interviews with Thomas Rhymsza, owner of KP Products; Dave Seberg, president of C & S Building Supply; Paul Stanford, owner of Tree-free Eco Paper, and David Hackett, environmental buyer for Kinko’s USA, and information from "Journal Pioneers Tree-Free Paper" by Gar Smith in Earth Island Journal, Summer 1993; "Making Paper Without Trees" by Ed Ayres in World Watch, Vol. 6, No. 5.