A person with a clear vision of the future who can stick with it
year after year, against all odds, is a rare find. Perhaps that's
why Tom Rymsza calls his company Vision
Paper and his product Vision. This high quality paper is chlorine
free, acid free and . . . tree free. It's kenaf. A member of the
hibiscus family, this fast-growing plant can be harvested over several
months annually, producing 3-5 times more fiber per acre per year
than trees, then compressed and stored for up to four years.
Rymsza's company handles the whole production cycle. It grows the
kenaf on farmland all over the U.S., often as an additional crop
that replenishes the soil before replanting the farmers' other crops.
Then the kenaf is shipped to a mill that specializes in making paper
pulp from plants, then to another mill that turns the pulp into
paper. Producing approximately 500 tons of kenaf paper per year,
Rymsza converts it into web rolls and sheets, then handles distribution.
Sales are not easy. Although it performs well on both sheet and
web presses, copiers and laser printers and looks like any other
fine creamy paper, kenaf copy and offset papers are often more expensive
than both recycled and virgin equivalents. However, the prices are
becoming much more competitive these days. Rymsza says, "The
high prices are the direct result of inefficiencies of scale. When
demand goes up, costs will come down." Besides, he adds, "Buying
kenaf paper is not about saving a buck, it's about saving a planet."
Prices were recently reduced due to increased production. In addition
to saving forests, growing kenaf requires little or no pesticides
and can revitalize depressed rural areas with new agricultural industry.
Many customers agree. David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth
and also of Earth Island, published the first book printed on kenaf,
Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run. Motorola printed its
1999 corporate environmental statement on 100% kenaf paper. Disney
printed their 2001 and 2002 annual environmental reports, Co-op
America regularly uses kenaf, and a nationally distributed greeting
card company, Tree-Free Greetings, prints solely on kenaf paper.
How did Rymsza get into a business with so many challenges? "I
had a momentary lapse of sanity," he laughs. Actually, several
years ago he read about U.S. government research into kenaf paper.
"When you discover an idea that strikes you as very possible
with both an environmental and entrepreneurial spirit, you look
for the fatal flaw. I could not find it. I don't think I could live
with myself if I gave it up and let these ideas die out for many
years," he explains.
What's next? Kenaf pulp cannot easily be made in a wood-pulping
mill, but many paper mills could buy the pulp as a feedstock for
their paper machines. So Vision Paper is in the development stage
of designing a pulp mill which, when built, will be the first kenaf
pulp mill in the world that is also totally chlorine free. The mill
will produce kenaf pulp that is of the same quality as tree pulp
with less chemicals, energy, and heat. This tree free kenaf pulp
will be competitive in the commodity pulp market. Rymsza continues
to work on building the infrastructure and developing the markets
for kenaf products as a founder and a director of the American
"Kenaf will become the main papermaking material," predicts
Rymsza. "Trees don't grow fast enough and we need to bring
new life to rural communities. It's just so simple . . . ."
But he also acknowledges, "It's incredibly difficult." No push-button,
short-term, fast return project, but Rymsza has proven he's the
man to do it.
- Susan Kinsella