environmentalists have a vision: One that includes amber
waves of grain and fields of plenty instead of chainsaws
in forests. They hope that plant fibers can take the
place in paper mills of today's forest fibers. But there
are many questions about whether this shift is appropriate
and feasible and how it could best be accomplished.
Despite disagreement on many of the specifics, virtually
all non-wood fiber experts agree there is much research
still to do.
report includes some of the data produced by nonwood
fiber researchers, but it is not by any means an exhaustive
collection. We intend to continue adding links and references
to data sources. But the Listening Study is focused
especially on the thinking that shapes these issues,
interprets the data and chooses what to explore - or
not to explore. Some of this thinking is informed by
data - which may or may not be readily accepted by others
- and some is not. Our purpose is to sort out the arguments
on these issues to find ways of moving through them
to more progress in advancing environmentally sustainable
Fibers vs. Tree Fibers
do alternative plant fibers compare to using tree fibers
for paper production? This is not a simple question
with a simple answer. Many different systems and sub-systems
mesh to produce either paper source, and each system
influences the environmental, social, technological,
geographic, and production evaluations necessary. In
fact, the most important point that our respondents
made over and over is that there can be no general answer
to this question. Indeed, there was also some debate
about whether this even is a valid question. John Mechem
of the American Forest and Paper Association was quoted
in a magazine article as saying, "We think finding a
replacement for wood fiber is a problem that does not
need to be solved."
Maureen Smith, author of an extensive environmental
evaluation of the U.S. paper industry, thinks that assertion
is premature: "Overall, the dominance of the wood-based
industry perspective and the associated research corpus
has strongly tended to overwhelm the debate as it has
emerged and to claim the benefit of the doubt. . . .
an important example of how a conventional wood-based
perspective could undermine the nonwoods idea before
it could even be argued."
almost all respondents, however, there are so very many
questions about nonwood fibers, in part because every
potential nonwood fiber source has a different profile
from the others. As Jeanne Trombly of Fiber Futures
told us, "Considering that nonwood plant fibers and
ag-residues were pulped and used for paper going as
far back as  AD, there are hundreds of sources
of non-woods for paper, each with a rich and diverse
history that can be explored depending on where one
needs the fiber and what the final product needs to
Listening Study responses identified four different
categories of sources for these plants:
or dedicated, crops grown specifically for paper fiber,
such as hemp, kenaf, jute and flax,
Agricultural residues left over from food production,
such as cereal, rice straw and bagasse (sugar cane),
Industrial residues (sometimes included with agricultural
residues) such as cotton linters snipped from cottonseed
after ginning for textiles but before pressing for
oils; cotton or linen scraps from clothing production;
and flax residue from oilseed, and
occurring uncultivated crops such as wild grasses,
sisal, and bamboo.
Virtually all the respondents would agree that each
type of plant fiber must be evaluated individually for
its advantages and disadvantages for use in paper production.
Many of the arguments surrounding different nonwood
options involve environmental comparisons. These are
critical to deciding whether it is worthwhile to pour
resources into developing one type of fiber over another,
as well as whether any nonwood fibers offer sufficient
advantages over the use of wood fibers to warrant the
investment. But environmental comparisons are not the
only consideration. A list of critical factors developed
through the discussions of each question in the tree
free section of the Listening Study shows a wide range
of hurdles a nonwood option has to meet:
does the plant fiber compare environmentally to tree
fibers and to other plant fibers? Is its sourcing
more benign than from natural forests? Is it more
benign than from tree plantations? Does its life-cycle
require pesticides, herbicides, excessive energy or
water? Does its sourcing or use benefit the environment,
such as kenaf rebuilding depleted soil or grain crop
residues providing a means for changing waste into
a beneficial product?
Does using the fiber for paper provide social benefits,
such as income for family farmers which in turn might
strengthen communities? Or does it lead to social
detriments, such as encouraging landowners to sell
off or cut down their forests or farmers to neglect
sufficient return of organic material to their soil?
Is it easily available in large quantities and compatible
with its environment? For example, the reed Arundo
donax was considered to have great potential for papermaking
in California until farmers objected that its invasive
qualities threatened their production and others became
concerned about its potential to block salmon streams.
But it may be an excellent candidate in a different
it be grown in sufficient quantities near a mill that
can pulp it? Can it easily be transported to a pulp
easily can it be pulped and does its pulping produce
problems that must be addressed? Plant fibers drain
water at different rates than wood fibers and than
each other, yet almost all the pulp mills in North
America are engineered for wood. The problem of large
amounts of silica produced when pulping agricultural
residues remains to be solved.
Do the fibers make good paper? Some are too short
for the strength required for some products, others
are too long.
Is the non-wood paper compatible with recycling? Some
nonwood fibers have already been proven to be recyclable.
There are concerns that others, particularly agricultural
residues, might break down more than wood fibers in
the strong mechanical action in a deinking pulp mill,
slowing drainage, reducing yield, and making weaker
products. Is that true or simply a negative myth that
needs to be debunked?
of the attractiveness of one option over another has
to do with the currently uneven development of different
possibilities. For example, Jeff Mendelsohn, president
of the environmental paper merchant New Leaf Paper,
pointed out, "It's easier to get low impact agricultural
fiber than FSC offcuts. However, it's easier to take
advantage of FSC certified woods because the systems
are already set up for pulping wood."
Paper, primarily a wood-based paper manufacturer, argued
for its predominant fiber source when it stated, "While
managed forests are entirely hospitable to biodiversity,
wildlife and endangered species, alternative fibers
are agricultural crops, which means they're monocultures
requiring the near eradication of any competing plant
or animal species."
Peter Hopkins, a spokesperson for Crane Paper Company,
summed up the dilemma over comparisons by saying, "There
are too many variables to do anything close to a life-cycle
analysis between 'ag fibers' and 'tree fibers.' Now,
if you take two specific cases and directly compare
them, you could complete a good study. Something that
would compare a specific fiber grown in a specific place
with specific conditions, processed in a specific way
for a specific paper. Then you could compare accurately
and with certainty."
there are many bases for comparison. Some argue on the
basis of yield, which varies widely for different plants,
at different times, in different places, and by different
methods. As Jeanne Trombly from Fiber Futures told us,
"Even in comparing the same fiber, such as wheat straw,
one may have drastic variations in fiber yield. The
density of wheat grown in eastern Washington is four
times that in Kansas, for instance. This is due to climate
conditions and soil quality. With bamboo, there are
over 1000 varieties that will have a different yield
per acre. Flax grown for linen grows much higher than
the seed kind, yet the seed kind yields a beautiful
are also different ways to calculate yield. Is it most
important to measure the volume in the field per acre?
Or should we look at how much land is necessary to grow
the equivalent amount of pulp? Maybe the most important
comparison is how much pulp the fiber produces after
going through a pulping process. Some of the reason
for sometimes contradictory claims may be that "yields"
are being measured based on different assumptions.
Rymsza of Vision Paper even argues that some of the
yield tables in the Paper Task Force report on nonwood
fibers are calculated using incorrect conversion factors,
yet they are used by many as the source for arguments
about the preference of agricultural residue fibers
over on-purpose crops. He asks, "How can we have a science-based
discussion attempting to arrive at a well-thought-out
comparison of the merits of different types of fiber
if the basic data - and even the basic conversion factors
- are wrong?"
do nonwood fibers compare to tree fibers in their papermaking
impacts on water, energy and pollution? Answers to these
questions seem to be tied up in systemic differences
that factor into the whole picture. The International
Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) points
out that, "Small mills are preferable for nonwoods because
of limited fiber supply, therefore capital costs are
lower. However, small mills by nature will be more polluting
because chemical recovery does not make economical sense.
The higher proportion of silica in most nonwood fibers
makes traditional chemical recovery processes ineffective."
Silica, present at high levels in some agricultural
residues such as straw and corn stalks, is a serious
problem. Tom Rymsza of Vision Paper describes that it
"accumulates and hardens on machinery, creating the
need to frequently stop production and clean with caustic
chemicals. Regularly shutting down machinery in a pulp
mill decreases any chance of creating an economically
viable product." Research is ongoing to resolve this
problem. Meanwhile, production with agricultural crops
that do not create this silica problem has moved ahead.
other environmental factors, nonwood fibers shine. Tom
Rymsza also reports, "Most annual crops, when compared
with trees, contain lower levels of lignin. Since chemical
pulping methods remove non-cellulose components, many
annuals can be pulped using milder chemistry and less
energy." Robert Hurter, in a TAPPI publication, notes,
"Bleaching of nonwood pulps . . . typically is easier
than woodpulp and requires fewer bleaching stages and
lower chemical consumptions." Ernett Altherimer of Nile
Fiber calls Arundo donax "a carbon sequestration giant.
It takes in carbon and effluents and stores them in
the leaves, stems, etc. . . . Compared with wood it
is 90% more efficient at sequestering carbon. Arundo
donax enhances the soil by processing toxic chemicals
to an inert form." Steve Shaffer of California's Department
of Food and Agriculture makes a similar point: "Kenaf's
long roots remove salt deposits in the soil and can
be used as an excellent rotation crop for improving
the soil . . . and can pull up lost nitrogen leached
farther down in the soil."
Peter A. Nelson of AgroTech Communications sums it up
by saying, "In theory, the wear and tear on the land
(topsoil) over ten years growing trees would be less
than an annual crop, while the production of pulp from
trees would require more energy and water based on lignin
International Paper would beg to differ, though, saying,
"Annual agricultural crops are more energy intensive
than sustainably managed forests. Much of the additional
raw material cost stems from the additional work and
energy required to deliver the material. In addition,
it is necessary to invest additional money in facilities
to convert them to produce paper made from agricultural
fibers. Reducing the cost of agricultural fiber crops
would not eliminate the fundamental biodiversity and
energy use problems associated with these crops."
Pesticides and Fertilizers
of the key points made in debates about the environmental
value of fibers from agricultural crops vs. forests
revolves around the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
Richard Denison at Environmental Defense puts it this
way: "The available data indicate that pesticide and
fertilizer usage even for plantation-grown trees is
generally lower than it is for kenaf and hemp. The main
reason for this is that trees are grown on multi-year
rotations with chemicals applied at most every few years,
in contrast to annual crops, where such chemicals are
applied annually." Yet perhaps there is room for improvement,
as IIED states that, "Most farmers use pesticides and
fertilisers on their non-wood fiber crops, although
it is possible to grow most types of fibre without those
The consideration is skewed, as well, by the fact that
agricultural residues, by definition, derive from crops
that would have been planted and grown whether or not
their residues are used for paper. Therefore, their
use of pesticides and fertilizers is considered irrelevant
to the paper fiber question, while on-purpose crops
must account for inputs from the very beginning. Yet
Peter Nelson at AgroTech is concerned about the effect
of financial incentives for residues, commenting, "I
discourage the idea of using crop residues. . . . Farmers
are an efficient bunch and if there were a 'commodity
price' for residues it would be too tempting to take
off too much residue. You have never heard of a farmer
intentionally leaving beans, cotton, or corn in the
field at harvest; the same farmer would not leave enough
residue for ground cover if he already took the time
to bale and move the residues."
are additional points that put a different spin on the
pesticide question. For example, some respondents pointed
out that sorghum is a fast grower and therefore has
less weed competition and less cultivation requirements;
kenaf is host to beneficial insects; a farmer harvesting
for fiber rather than for fruit or grain needs less
herbicide and no insecticide.
are social realities, as well. IIED states, "There are
two main advantages for farmers in growing fibre crops
rather than trees. Firstly, the area under the crop
can be changed every year depending on the relative
benefits from the crop. Secondly, income is generated
every year, avoiding the need for credit to support
tree growing costs over many years." At the same time,
perception may play a role, according to Russ Clark,
of the U.S. EPA's Environmentally Preferable Purchasing
Program, who points out, "[Nonwoods] may not have an
advantage because people may not see trees as toxic.
Whereas consumers might believe that agricultural products
were grown with pesticides, they could believe trees
just grew in a forest and must be natural."
Residues vs. On-Purpose Crops
question of whether nonwood fibers would be better for
papermaking than tree fibers is tied up with the question
of exactly which nonwood fibers would be used. There
is a strong camp arguing for only the use of agricultural
residues, since they already exist and would otherwise
be waste products (beyond the volume that is turned
back into the soil for amendments). Maureen Smith points
out that, "By one estimate, depending on growing practice
and soil type, an average of more than 50 percent of
harvested cereal straw is available as surplus." Jeanne
Trombly put it well by saying, "The biggest opportunity
for using non-wood fibers with little land impact is
simply to use the residues of the millions of tons of
crops that are already being grown for food and oilseed."
Paper Task Force report argued, "Using agricultural
residues to make paper helps solve a waste management
problem for farmers and provides an additional source
of fiber for papermaking. Chemical use throughout the
fiber acquisition process is also low. Paper industry
experts think that agricultural residues will be more
competitive than annual crops because no additional
land is required and the agronomic practice has already
been developed. Harvesting straw for pulping eliminates
the burning of straw and the resulting air pollution."
But it also recognized some downsides: "Harvesting the
straw can lead to a loss of nutrients in the soil. Farmers
must then balance the cost of a smaller straw harvest
with the application of fertilizer to compensate for
the nutrient loss."
are also many supporters of on-purpose crops. Tom Rymsza,
in arguing for kenaf, states, "In the US, almost 80%
of all annual row crop land is used to produce three
main crops - corn, soybeans and wheat. That does not
represent diversity or sustainability. The intensive
agricultural practices currently used require high levels
of fertilizer and chemicals on those crops. Adding new
crops that are rotated with conventional crops will
reduce overall pesticide and other chemical use, will
contribute to maintaining soil fertility, and will help
to reduce surpluses. . . . When prices are low [because
of surpluses], the government steps in with deficiency
payments to farmers (subsidies), which cost you, the
taxpayer, money, and which create an un-level playing
field in the world trade picture."
Association for the Advancement of Industrial Crops
agrees, reminding us that, " . . . overconcentration
and overproduction in a relatively small number of food
and feed crops have created global problems. Clearly,
diversification in agriculture is of high priority."
Russ Clark, at EPA's Environmentally Preferable Purchasing
Program, suggests that, "As sustainable forestry issues
become more defined, we have to also look at sustainable
agriculture." To the nonwood papermakers at Living Tree
Paper Company, that means using on-purpose crops for
rotation crop farming, which they say "is far less damaging
than current industrial chemical agricultural practices."
advocates for ag residues voice a worry that markets
for on-purpose crops would encourage landowners to cut
down their forests for farming. EPA's Russ Clark demurs,
"I don't think anyone is thinking of cutting down existing
tree farms or forests to plant crops. With a life cycle
analysis, we would understand the implications of such
a replacement," and Tom Rymsza points out, "There are
over 75 million idle agricultural acres in the U.S.
If only a portion of this went to growing kenaf, the
supply would be adequate."
Still, Richard Denison at Environmental Defense believes
that, "It is hard to imagine that the biological value
of even the most intensive of tree plantations would
ever be lower than that of an agricultural field of
comparable size. Indeed, I would argue that, acre for
acre, from an ecological perspective, habitat value,
biodiversity and water quality protection and soil carbon
storage would all be higher for silviculture relative
to agriculture because harvesting, replanting, fertilization
and pesticide application only occur on a multi-year
basis rather than annually."
Nicole Rycroft, of Canada's Markets Initiative, points
out that these arguments can be situational: "From a
Canadian perspective, it makes a lot of sense to further
explore annual crops as viable fibre options. I understand
there have been some lifecycle studies that point to
Southeastern U.S. tree farms as more benign than on-purpose
crops. In the Canadian context, wood fibre and pulps
primarily originate from old-growth or intact forest
eco-systems. . . . Because the biodiversity values,
ecological functions and services of old growth forests
are very different from Southeastern U.S. tree farms,
it may well be that many on-purpose crops actually are
preferable from a life-cycle analysis perspective to
pulp and fibre from intact old growth forests."
Kelly Sheehan, at North Carolina's Dogwood Alliance,
questions whether tree plantations can be seen in a
positive light: "It is important to follow and support
research into on-purpose crops. I think we should be
careful not to refer to pine plantations as benign in
most any context. Giving the impression that plantations
support biodiversity is inaccurate. (Unless of course
we're talking about deer populations!) The conversion
of natural forests in the Southeast to pine plantations,
requiring an intensive use of herbicides and fertilizers,
is one of our greatest challenges to forest protection
in this region."
the late environmental luminary David Brower, there
was no contest. In an article called "Kenaf: A Tree-Free
Alternative," he wrote, "The forest plantations that
cover ancient forest soils are not the answer. These
plantations tie up useful land, and after only a few
rounds, leave the soil decimated. We cannot pretend
that we will turn these areas back into forests. Kenaf
offers us a viable alternative."
Susan Kinsella at Conservatree questions the premise
underlying the debate: " I think there is way too much
focus on comparisons only to forests. . . . [T]his question
is more complex than that. It crosses over to also include
agricultural sustainability issues, where there is a
whole different set of thinkers and activists working
to re-orient the agricultural status quo to be more
sustainable both for farmers and the land. So the question
of ag residues vs. on-purpose crops cannot be analyzed
only from a forest paradigm. We have to bring in an
additional set of experts with sustainable agriculture
expertise and perspectives to add to the forest considerations."
for "the practical and implementable, not just the theoretical,"
Conservatree maintains that "the only U.S. or Canadian
nonwood fibers that have gotten to consistent marketplace
printing and writing paper products, other than cotton
and a very small amount of bagasse, are on-purpose crops.
The companies that produce them . . . have taken enormous
financial risks, put in decades of phenomenal dedication,
built complex sourcing systems from the ground up, responded
to environmental issues, and turned out extremely high
quality products in a highly technical and demanding
industry." While clearly encouraging more work on developing
ag residue paper fiber potentials, Conservatree urges
that nonwood fiber supporters not "turn our backs on
the people who have actually already made nonwood papers
in the U.S. a reality."
In creating that reality, there has been a good deal
of in-depth research and experimentation with both on-purpose
crops and agricultural residues. The U.S. federal government
reports, "Since the 1930's, the U.S. Department of Agriculture
has devoted some attention to possible use of nonwoody
plant fibers (especially crop residues such as sugarcane
bagasse and grain straw) in pulp and paper. . . . As
a first step in identifying new sources of fibers for
pulp, a botanical-analytical screening system was established.
. . . Among 387 species that were subjected to the entire
screening evaluation, kenaf and sunn hemp were most
promising. The later decision to concentrate on kenaf
rather than sunn hemp was based largely on the ability
of kenaf to produce consistently higher yields with
much better standability."
Wong, an innovative papermaker who works with straw
and grain crop residues, recommends that researchers
"re-examine the supply of papermaking fibres from a
zero-base viewpoint, without technical prejudice. The
obvious sensible approach is the reinforcement of the
basic tenet: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, and with the
addition of a '4th R.' The fourth 'R' is replacement
of traditional virgin wood fibres with other fibres.
Replacement with agricultural cropping residues in paper
manufacture, in conjunction with 'reduce, reuse and
recycle' practices, would have a significant impact
on 'saving trees.'"
the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA and the
Alberta Research Council in Canada are researching new
crops that can be used for industrial - in this case
papermaking - purposes. Purdue University has an Internet
New Crop Online Resource Program. The USDA's Forest
Products Laboratory as well as several university paper
and/or forestry schools conduct studies into agricultural
yet, most of the comments by leading experts in the
field are laced with acknowledgements that more study
and more development is needed. Peter Hopkins of Crane
Paper Company points out, "Tradition is a major holdup.
Since just after the Civil War, paper has been made
from trees. Every piece of papermaking machinery has
been designed for trees. You can't just dump a bale
of kenaf into a pulper, because the pulper was designed
specifically for trees. The tree paper industry has
built economies of scale from research to distribution.
On the other hand, how much is spent on ag-fiber paper
research in the last couple of years? Pretty close to
$0 has been spent for kenaf, hemp, bagasse, sisal, jute,
straw, flax, you name it. Meanwhile, millions are spent
each year to develop higher-yielding, shorter-rotation
tree-crops. We're really just starting to figure out
how to get ag fibers grown and processed efficiently."
basic requirement is infrastructure. Other than about
a dozen cotton pulping mills and three or four mills
that pulp flax for specialty items such as filters,
cigarette papers and teabags, there is virtually no
non-wood pulping in the U.S. and Canada. Al Wong's small
experimental pulper in western Canada has advanced the
knowledge and technology for pulping ag residues, and
there is some pulping of bagasse (sugar cane residue)
nonwoods expert Michael Jackson says, "Most agricultural
fibers will not process in the raw material handling
and pulping stages of existing wood pulp mills," and,
as AgroTech's Peter Nelson points out, "Conversion [to
nonwood fibers] is more complex than just the pulp;
the existing infrastructure is a part of the larger
wood products industry. . . . A pulping mill conversion
would affect the far-reaching markets of wood products,"
and therefore presumably be contradictory to interests
of paper companies that rely on virgin wood fibers.
However, Andrew Kaldor, in a TAPPI Journal article,
notes a contradiction: "[A] commonly held view today
among the pulp industry experts of developed countries
is that the production of nonwood fibers is not viable
or competitive in their economic environment. The same
industries, on the other hand, are prepared to accept
a heavy long-term reliance on wood fibers due to a perceived
lack of alternatives."
Even despite the lack of infrastructure, though, there
are a surprising number of high quality printing and
writing papers that already contain nonwood fibers.
Conservatree's website Guide to Environmental Printing
and Writing Papers lists nearly 80, with almost half
of those containing nonwood fibers other than cotton,
including hemp, flax, bagasse, kenaf, banana stalk fiber,
coffee and tobacco plant residue, seaweed, old currency
and blue jeans.
Towards the Future
does the future hold for nonwood fibers? That depends
on many factors, including financial. Jeanne Trombly
describes the fiscal realities: "The price of raw material
wood chips is maintained artificially low because of
many resource tax breaks and other give-aways of public
agencies that own large swaths of forestland, not only
in North America but all over the world. Only when wood
increases in price do the paper companies get interested
in non-woods. . . . One of the biggest factors in the
costs of non-woods is the price of pollution control
technologies to recover the pulping chemicals. The wood
pulping chemical recovery systems have not worked for
non-woods and new inventions have been introduced, but
the entrepreneurs providing lab-scale alternatives have
not been able to raise the capital needed to get these
new technologies into pilot scale. Yet this may change
as one major development is about to break due to the
demand for non-wood pulping in China."
Plans are underway for a kenaf pulp mill in the U.S.
Southeast and research is going into the feasibility
of an agricultural residue pulp mill in Alberta, Canada.
But, as with recycled content and other environmental
paper characteristics, the deciding factor will be demand.
Peter Nelson says, "Many of the efforts in the past
have focused on beating out other crops such as corn
or soybean and promoting one specific fiber. A more
effective technique is to win the consumer's heart for
natural ingredients from the ground as better than synthetics.
Then the individual fibers can develop their own niches.
The nonwood industry would be better off to market nonwood
fibers as a diversified sustainable opportunity." Paper
industry consultant Peter Hopkins agrees, "Industry
is not going to change just because we want them to
start using ag fibers to make paper. Consumer demand
has to change in the absence of other motivating factors
for the paper industry. . . . [If] there are enough
consumers out there saying they won't buy virgin wood
paper, the industry will find the economic advantage
and take heed."
comes first, the demand or the capacity, the chicken
or the egg? James S. Han, a research chemist at USDA's
Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory, suggests,
"A perfect scenario would be establishment of small
pulp mills at the heart of the wheat belt, corn belt,
etc., compact the straw and send it to the mills, then
pulp during the off-season, hiring the farmers. Pulps
can then be shipped to the paper mills. Thus, combine
farming and pulping. It is no different than sending
grains to the mills to be processed as flour." Maureen
Smith expands the vision, saying, "Generally, the transport
issues associated with nonwoods, the corollary emphasis
on smaller-scale pulping formats, and the issues of
heterogeneity in fiber types, sources, and applications,
are the basis of an increasingly strong regional theme
that runs through the debate."
over and over again, comments in the Listening Study
show that environmental issues and desirable nonwood
fiber profiles vary considerably between geographic
areas. Answers in one region may actually create problems
in another. While the paper produced may be sold nationally
or even internationally, the appropriate fiber sources
and processing systems may be very different from one
part of the country to another. Perhaps some of the
controversies around nonwood fibers have developed from
attempts to impose one answer on such a variety of situations.
Peter Hopkins, representing Crane Paper Company, explains,
"Supply for ag residues is a regional issue: A mill
in Maine might want to use rice straw. It doesn't matter
if there are millions of tons in California, the cost
of transportation might mean that there is effectively
no supply for that mill in Maine."
So are there enough tree free fibers to produce paper?
In theory, yes, of course, says Peter Nelson, "However,
it is hard to know when to stop counting - in theory,
we could pulp tree clippings from town, but the land
management, collection, and transportation is complicated.
Pound for pound, hauling trees is generally far more
efficient than hauling baled hay. In practicality, all
the existing residue cannot and should not be harvested."
Of course, regional variations provide the potential
for many different successful scenarios.
Whatever types of nonwood fibers are pursued, there
is a daunting amount of work ahead to develop competitive
systems. "Just think of all the effort than has gone
into developing the collection, processing and use of
recycled fibers," says Michael Jackson. "A similar effort
and capital investment would have to go into systems
for agricultural fiber use." Fortunately, there are
a number of entrepreneurs and advocates already tackling
developing those systems.
the nonwood fiber portion of environmental paper development
is fraught with a number of knotty problems:
What data can we rely on to evaluate whether nonwood
papermaking fibers are environmentally worthwhile
to pursue in comparison to wood fiber?
fibers are worth pouring research and development
resources into advancing?
we support the use of both agricultural residues and
on-purpose crops or only one or the other?
do we solve production problems such as silica burdens?
do producers juggle attracting investment financing
to build nonwood fiber mills while at the same time
developing customer demand that will motivate and
do we develop that customer demand in the first place?
the prices of nonwood products be competitive with
wood fiber products produced in long-established,
highly stable and well-capitalized manufacturing systems,
or can they create niches that allow them time to
build the necessary economies of scale?
Clark at EPA sees practical requirements: "The [nonwood
paper manufacturing] industry needs to do a better job
at putting their nonwood materials side by side with
trees to understand as a country which papers are preferable.
There is a lot of support on 'the Hill' for agriculture-based
products. On the other hand, the forestry industry has
a lot of lobbyists. Without good information, the [nonwood]
industry is not going to get far."
Leaf Paper's Jeff Mendelsohn continues that point, "To
address the technical barriers, there needs to be a
combined effort from private industry and public research.
When fighting an entrenched industry with significant
barriers to entry, public support is critical." Peter
Nelson clarifies, "The inherently impossible question
seems to be: Overall, how do we minimize impact of industries
that by existing destroy the earth? There is a clear
role for the public dollar in nonwood research. There
is already a ton of federal research money going into
tree genetics, lower energy, and water use. We have
to tap into this research."
Tyson Miller, program director for the Recycled Products
Purchasing Cooperative, which makes environmental office
papers available at competitive prices, spells out some
of what he thinks is needed:
should be more public funding for R&D to develop new
hybrids and varieties that are resistant to pests.
Cooperative extensions would be good entities to accomplish
cooperatives that pool fiber producers together to
reduce transportation and production costs would be
should also be government participation in the fiber
production. The government could use public lands
to set cheap rates or grow it themselves.
industry should identify the potential users to determine
their price point and what preference they would give
to alternative fibers, if any. Then they should balance
the demand against the costs of production to see
how much the price can be pushed down.
The collection infrastructure should be targeted.
The industry could reduce the overall costs of getting
pulp to industry by developing regional collection
programs to get high volumes shipped. With this model,
the pulp purchasers can reduce their fiber unit costs.
Promoters would also need to target producers to show
that there would be a demand for tree-free papers.
With demand numbers they could get the "big four"
to invest in capital equipment and conversion costs.
of this is already happening. Peter Nelson of AgroTech
relates, "To help develop the marketing end, AgroTech
Communications, Inc. is participating with 40+ biobased
companies to develop the Biobased Manufacturers Association
(BMA) to help in marketing biobased products based on
their inherent attributes. . . . One aspect of the program
is setting up cooperative purchasing. . . .The nonwood
industry would be better off to market nonwood fibers
as a diversified sustainable opportunity. Particularly
after September 11, the industry needs to market to
Washington. They also need to heal wounds with the wood
industry to come up with the best balance."
Clark sees more, "As sustainable forestry issues become
more defined, we have to also look at sustainable agriculture.
To compare how an acre of trees versus an acre of agriculture
is managed, we need a clear standard for comparison.
The criteria for organics are primarily related to human
health, how much residue is on the fruit or vegetable.
It might be appropriate to develop a non-food standard.
It would have to be beyond the organic requirements
and focus on the life cycle issues: runoff, irrigation,
transportation limits of inputs, etc."
Han at USDA's Forest Products Laboratory sees an even
larger agenda, "Future outlook seems to me is based
more on the control of imports and national policy rather
than availability of agricultural pulping facilities.
Without a national policy, cheap imported chips, pulps,
and papers will flood the U.S. market."
so much basic work still needed, why is there nevertheless
so much motivation to develop nonwood papermaking fibers?
After all, as Maureen Smith so aptly puts it, "If the
question is one of fitting a heterogeneous and disbursed
alternative fiber supply into a geographically concentrated,
technologically rigid, vertically integrated, capital-intensive
industry, one begins to better understand the modern
history of nonwood paper commercialization efforts.
The question becomes less why the commercialization
of nonwood fiber pulping has yet to succeed, than why
anyone in his or her right mind would still be trying."
But there are two sides to this picture. On one hand,
Maureen comments, "When one views the issue from a broad
perspective of social and environmental opportunity
. . . one sees nothing short of abject failure and gross
irresponsibility reflected in the modern industrial
status quo." Yet on the other hand, "One also sees an
area of potential remarkable for its reach, its regional
variability, and its human and ecological significance."
It is that second view that inspires this report on
tree free paper questions.
for Next Steps
we point out in this summary, and as is obvious in reading
the full comments, there are a number of difficulties
in the nonwood paper fibers field that hamper its development.
The obstacles cover all the different kinds we initially
contemplated in developing the Listening Study:
Developmental - The North American infrastructure
for nonwood fiber sources other than cotton is mostly
either fledgling or nonexistent, with agricultural
sources, transportation, pulping and distribution
systems all needing development. The fibers now available
are often pulped as special cases in mills built for
other types of fibers.
- Successful development requires a great deal of
investment and capitalization in order to achieve
economies of scale that can mainstream the products.
Technical - New pulping processes need to be
developed to overcome the silica problem with agricultural
residues. All kinds of research and testing are needed
for all the potential fiber choices.
- Studies and debates need to be presented with much
more clarity about exactly what fibers are being discussed,
in what geographic regions with what kinds of contexts.
Readers will notice in reading through the comments
in this report that many discuss "nonwood fibers"
as one entity, yet the comments are clearly applicable
to only on-purpose crops, or only agricultural residues,
or only a particular fiber and not another. We have
reached a point in this field's development where
it is essential to be specific about the statements
made so that others will be able to accurately apply
them. There also clearly is a need to enlarge the
knowledge-base for nonwood paper issues by bringing
in expertise about sustainable agriculture. Much of
the discussion so far has been framed by those with
expertise in forest issues, primarily because the
product we are discussing - paper - has been so overwhelmingly
produced from wood fibers. Nonwood fibers require
equal expertise in agriculture.
Value-driven - Of course, the traditional wood-based
paper industry has a great deal invested in maintaining
its tree-fiber-based systems, and this informs their
viewpoints and considerations. Environmental advocates
bring in-depth knowledge of ecosystem issues to the
questions, but generally do not have business backgrounds.
Some are even suspicious of business needs that are
in the forefront for entrepreneurs trying to bring
nonwood products to the marketplace. Rather than always
seeing these values in competition, those involved
in these discussions have many opportunities to enlarge
their understandings enough to incorporate many competing
needs, in order to encourage development of the prototypes
and systems necessary to build towards success.
Political - U.S. economic values and capital
systems that encompass only the most overt financial
costs while disregarding environmental, social, infrastructure,
and other non-monetary costs (often labeled "indirect
costs") are encouraging the traditional paper industry
to make almost all new investments outside of North
America in order to be "competitive." This global
focus by large companies could possibly increase opportunities
for entrepreneurs who think locally and regionally,
but they will likely be faced with the same sort of
investment critiques and expectations that undermine
domestic investments by large companies. Subsidies
to forestry and wood-based papermaking, as well as
generous subsidies to paper companies in a number
of other countries, discourage development of new
types of papermaking facilities in the U.S. However,
there are also bio-based research funds available
through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (although
these are often interpreted to apply to wood-based
products) and other federal sources that could support
some of the necessary nonwood research.
addition, the current comments in the Listening Study
suggest some specific steps that would help move these
of the specific technical research necessary will be
identified by those developing specific nonwood fiber
sources. But there are some points that will make it
easier for others to evaluate the data available, as
well as which studies are sound foundations for choosing
Address research study criticisms. There are
many reasons why studies of similar issues might show
quite different results, or why researchers might
arrive at very different opinions. But advocates,
policymakers, purchasers, and other researchers deserve
explanations so that they can effectively evaluate
which studies to rely on. If calculations or conclusions
are criticized, they should be actively addressed
and substantiated. If there are errors, the data should
be recalculated or withdrawn.
transparency for opinion articles.
This field needs a solid footing in order to move
forward. Some opinion pieces have substantiated their
conclusions with compilations of statistics but not
cited the background data that would let readers assess
whether they agree that the statistics chosen for
the compilations were appropriate.
sustainable agriculture perspectives into the discussion.
Network with agricultural experts on paper issues,
both to bring more of their knowledge into illuminating
fiber sourcing discussions and also to bring more
of a paper perspective into their sustainable agriculture
applicable studies, particularly life cycle and
environmental analyses, from other languages. Researchers
in Japan, China, India, Thailand and other countries
that have established expertise in nonwood papermaking
have valuable information to add to North American
evaluations of nonwood fibers.
Pursue life cycle analyses of the nonwood fibers
most likely to be used for papermaking in the U.S.
and Canada. This will require also developing accepted
frameworks for analysis. It may also require life
cycle analyses of tree fibers in different contexts
(e.g. old growth forests, sustainably certified forests,
second- and third-growth forests, plantations) for
incentives, disincentives and laws that could
alleviate concerns about converting forests to crops.
Determine whether potential nonwood pulps can be
solutions to the silica problem that hampers pulping
many types of nonwood fibers and bring them to production-scale
and build pulping mills appropriate for specific
nonwood fibers that will be used for papermaking.
Experiment with creative options to the traditional
large-scale mills developed by wood-based paper companies,
particularly small-scale, regional and cooperative
Support entrepreneurs' efforts in developing
specific nonwood papers, unless there are serious
and proven environmental problems involved. Environmental
obstacles should be solidly substantiated, not simply
The nonwood fiber
pulp and paper markets are currently so miniscule
that mixed messages or opposition from environmental
groups can dissuade paper purchasers and undermine
market development. Especially because nonwood fibers
appear to be most successfully approached as regional
sources, the more options allowed to develop, the
better the possibility of developing thriving nonwood
alternatives to wood-based pulps.
Develop a consensus among environmental groups
on which nonwood fibers they can support in a unified
way. The process for reaching consensus should include
a wide range of expertise, including agriculture and
papermaking as well as forestry.