Chlorine Free Paper Issues


What is the comparison of impacts between agricultural residues and on-purpose crops?

Agricultural Residue Impacts
On-Purpose Crops Impacts
Forest Impacts
Impacts on Farmers
Papermaking Qualities
Impact on Sustainability Systems

Listening Study: The question of whether agricultural residues are environmentally preferable to on-purpose crops for paper pulp use has become a hot debate within the environmental community. This section captures part of that debate and will be expanded as more voices add their perspectives.
      To begin, several respondents suggest criteria and processes for making these comparisons.

The evaluation of nonwoods for today's fiber needs should include raw material costs, chemical composition affecting yield, ease of pulping and bleaching and waste stream considerations. Economic viability, recyclability, and the environmental impacts of collection and production, or Life Cycle Analysis - all must be considered. - Tom Rymsza, President, Vision Paper

You should differentiate agricultural cropping residues from on-purpose cropped fibres. High growth of above-ground biomass corresponds to high nitrogen fertilizer uptake . . . a law of nature. Within the agri-cropping residue group, one should also differentiate again on food versus non-food cropping. Growing cotton on subsidized water may be a frivolous anti-social activity.
      See for example, my presentation, "Comparative emission of methane from different rice straw management practices in California - A statewide perspective." - Al Wong, Founder, Arbokem

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. - Russell Clark, Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Program, US EPA

LISTENING STUDY: The Environmental Paper Network achieved a consensus Common Vision among environmental groups for developing future environmentally sustainable papers. Following is a relevant part of the hierarchy.

Eliminate paper manufactured solely of virgin fiber and fundamentally reduce reliance on virgin tree fibers. . . . Maximize post-consumer recycled fiber content in all paper and paper products. Increase the use of other recovered materials (e.g., agricultural residues and pre-consumer recycled) as a fiber source in paper. . . . Use alternative crops for paper if comprehensive and credible analysis indicates that they are environmentally and socially preferable to other virgin fiber sources. - Environmental Paper Network, "A Common Vision for Transforming the Paper Industry"

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Agricultural Residue Impacts

LISTENING STUDY: Many respondents praised or criticized agricultural residues as a source for paper fiber.

Using agricultural residues as a fiber source for paper offers clear environmental benefits. These residues are a by-product of a crop grown for other purposes, rather than being grown directly for use as fiber. Hence, using these residues as a source of fiber represents a beneficial use for an existing waste product while displacing the need for virgin fiber, whether from annual crops or trees. Farmers also avoid generating the air pollution that results from the widespread alternative practice of burning the residues in the field. - Richard Denison, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Environmental Defense


Click the table below for a larger version

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.
      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. More research is needed on the effects of taking away agricultural residues on soil fertility (loss of nutrients) and soil structure (faster penetration of water and thus increased irrigation requirements). - Environmental Defense Fund Paper Task Force, White Paper 13, "Non-Wood Fiber Sources"

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. This includes most of the cereal crops (wheat, rice, barley, oats) as well as bagasse, flax and hemp. The debate about land use then only comes into play when considering bamboo, kenaf, arundo and other dedicated fiber crops. - Jeanne Trombly, Fiber Futures

The utilization of agricultural residues does not increase the inputs of pesticides and fertilizers since these would be applied whether or not the crops are used for paper-making. - IIED 1996, Towards A Sustainable Paper Cycle

Direct comparison between virgin fibers and agricultural by-product fibers is not fair practice. The amount of land, need for pesticides and fertilizers, etc. are already counted in growing agricultural products (according to the principle of Life Cycle Assessment). The only expense to the agricultural residues should be the expense of removing the fibers after the removal of the main product's "grain." Therefore, the impact of these types of agricultural residues should be zero, or need readjustment. Sometimes, these residues are unwanted by the farmers and some farmers will pay to get rid of them. Thus, utilization of agricultural residues in the pulp and paper industry can be compared to killing two birds with one stone. - James S. Han, Research Chemist, USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory

The use of agricultural residues for papermaking is mostly positive, as it generates income and reduces waste. But this has to be weighed up against alternative uses of residues such as for fuel and fodder. - IIED 1996, Towards A Sustainable Paper Cycle

Once again, without a life cycle assessment this is educated guessing. Agricultural residues would have less impact because it is an available resource that is often burned or landfilled. - Living Tree Paper Company

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, or roughly one metric tonne per hectare of cereal grain (0.4 ton/acre), with the remainder tilled into the soil to prevent erosion and preserve soil productivity. - Maureen Smith, The U.S. Paper Industry and Sustainable Production

In some places, particularly rural areas in countries with few wood resources (both developed and developing), it may be more appropriate to use locally available nonwood fibers for paper-making than to import wood, paper, pulp or waste paper. This is especially the case where excess agricultural residues are available. The benefits include savings in foreign exchange, increased local incomes and reduced long distance transport. Non-wood mills may be particularly suitable where high population densities or other factors preclude tree growing. Crops can be rotated depending on what is profitable that year, rather than being locked into cycles. - IIED 1996, Towards A Sustainable Paper Cycle

Gathering agricultural residues shares field operations with other crops; they require less mechanical input than on purpose crops. Unfortunately, there are no ag residues that have much potential in the paper industry. The high silica and lignin levels of some of these fibers create problems in the pulp mill and lead toward high chemical use.
      With all agricultural products, the farmer's main interest is in the primary crop. The technical fiber characteristics are of little concern to a farmer who makes most of his or her income from the grain. Maintaining a reliable raw material stream that reacts with demand would be difficult when using a byproduct of another industry. On purpose fiber crops such as kenaf provide a more consistent, viable product. - Tom Rymsza, President, Vision Paper

In general, I discourage the idea of using crop residues (except in specific situations that would otherwise require burning or create other problems). 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 residues for ground cover if he already took the time to bale and move the residues. Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA) takes a similar stance on crop residues (
      The USDA is still arguing amongst itself about harvesting crop residues. Their official statement is that unless it is to prevent soilborne diseases or other specific purposes, they've cut off funding towards research on harvesting. Some of their previous work on wheat straw shows it's promising, but the cost is the holdup. They claim that farmers can be competitive getting $40/ton of residue, whereas farmers actually should get $50/ton based purely on protein content (i.e.: hay production). A farmer is not going to start their tractor just to collect straw at such low commodity prices.
      It would be more viable to develop a farmer's co-op directly connected to the industry. For example, if you have three farmers who own equity in a paper making factory then, unlike most commodity crops, these farmers can think year-to-year in a sustainable way. Then the straw price wouldn't be tied to a commodity price. So, the incentive for us to leave residue on the fields is much higher than if we put a commodity price on the residue (which the market would form based on volumes). This scenario encourages entrepreneurs and farmers to responsibly run the business. The same is true for the wood products industry. As a farmer, I love my land more than anyone else, and want the opportunity to manage it in a sustainable way. - Peter A. Nelson, President, AgroTech Communications, Inc.

LISTENING STUDY: Most of the arguments regarding agricultural residues vs. on-purpose crops reference straw and grain residues vs. kenaf or hemp, the two on-purpose crops that are available as paper pulp sources in North America. But not long ago, arguments were raging about the use of cotton to make paper, and whether it even should be included in discussions about nonwood paper fibers at all. In fact, the U.S. EPA categorizes cotton linters (the agricultural residue from which paper is made) as a preconsumer recycled industrial fiber source, and there are even a few postconsumer recycled sources such as used denim and currency. Peter Hopkins responds to some of the misunderstandings about cotton fiber sources.

With regards to cotton, cotton growth practices are the sole responsibility of those who grow the crop. Cotton-fibers used for papermaking are the waste products of cotton-ginning and the manufacture of textiles and finished garments. These papermakers have no influence on how cotton is grown. If cotton-fiber papermakers announced they were only going to make papers from organic cotton, not a single acre would be converted to organic cotton, because they don't make paper from field cotton. Those tree-free paper manufacturers, who have been in business since before trees were cut for paper, would immediately go out of business. - Peter Hopkins, Environmental Papers Consultant for Crane Paper Company, Gargan Communications

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On-Purpose Crops Impacts

LISTENING STUDY: Some respondents praised or criticized crops grown "on purpose" for paper fiber.

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, which drive prices down. When prices are low, 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.
      The clearly documented higher productivity of kenaf, when considering the amount of paper that can be produced from a given land area compared to trees, coupled with the benefits derived from a more diverse agricultural crop mix, and the subsequent benefits to rural economies, are compelling. - Tom Rymsza, President, Vision Paper

Since the early 1930's the US 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. Limited amounts of pulps from nonwood plant species are used alone and in blends with wood pulps to develop special properties in the final papers.
      Beginning in 1956, the Agricultural Research Service initiated a new approach to the fiber resource problem. This involved the identification of new plant species that could compete with pulpwood in furnishing satisfactory fibers for pulp and paper that could compete with crops of a given region in providing growers a new crop source of income. Pulp and paper producers should be able to use these fibers either alone or in conjunction with other fibers.
      As a first step in identifying new sources of fibers for pulp, a botanical-analytical screening system was established. This approach was necessary to systematically evaluate samples from the large reservoir of higher plant species. Characteristics of pulpwood and other accepted pulping materials served as a guideline in determining which properties of nonwoody species should be measured. The resulting criteria by which the plant species were judged for their papermaking potential were as follows: (1) Botanical characteristics - based on normal habitat, form, agronomic adaptability and size; (2) Chemical Composition - based on crude and alpha cellulose and on solubility in 1% NaOH solution; (3) Fiber Dimensions; (4) individual appraisal; and (5) yield on maceration.
      Among 387 species that were subjected to the entire screening evaluation, kenaf and sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea L.) 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 than sunn hemp. Other promising species included selected sorghums and hemp (Cannabis sativa L.). - "Search for New Fiber Crops," US Department of Agriculture

We have found that the financial returns [for kenaf] to farmers are greater than if they were selling agricultural residues for pulping. However, farmers can have difficulty obtaining a loan for kenaf because of the lack of experience with the crop. Farmers typically need to earn two times the cost of growing the crop. These returns are possible, especially as the excess core material can be sold to kitty litter and oil absorbent cosmetic markets, among others. - Tom Rymsza, President, Vision Paper

Hemp generally pulls in higher value for textiles than for paper. - Tom Rymsza, President, Vision Paper

LISTENING STUDY: Some compared and contrasted the two different kinds of sources.

From the purchaser's standpoint, we haven't heard much about the environmental impacts. [Nonwood fibers] seem like a viable fiber resource, though we'd like to see a life-cycle analysis that would show the optimal way of growing, harvesting, and transporting the fiber. For example, we need to make sure that the forests aren't converted to produce on-purpose crops. Ideally, alternative fibers would be grown in economically disadvantaged areas to promote rural development. If private lands were being cleared for on-purpose crops, I would offer no support, though I don't believe that is happening.
      Agricultural residues would be a wonderful alternative if they have the same integrity and the capital costs were low. It would be interesting to see what producers have been finding. For example, what would they say about the fiber strength? - Tyson Miller, Program Director, Recycled Products Purchasing Cooperative

For farmers, residual fiber is added value but may impact soil quality adversely if current practice is to plow it in for soil amendment. Otherwise, there are no changes from growing the main crop. Time for residuals removal has to be made and is usually required when dry. Fiber-dedicated (on-purpose) crops require diversion of agricultural land from other (food) crops. - Michael Jackson, Consultant, Tolovana Park, OR

In some cases, and especially where fiber can be obtained from food crop residues, the use of nonwood fiber is quite attractive from an environmental perspective. In other instances, and particularly those in which fiber is obtained from dedicated fiber crops, the environmental impacts can be quite substantial, and often greater than impacts linked to the periodic harvest of trees. - Dr. Jim L. Bowyer, et al, Dovetail Partners

Generally, one would expect lesser environmental costs associated with the use of agricultural residuals than with fibers grown expressly for papermaking. This is because much of the environmental cost of using residues would be allocated to the primary use of the plant. Where the intent is only fiber, all of the environmental costs must be associated with fiber production and use. This does not mean that consequences for the farmer, the land and resources are reduced; they are merely allocated differently. - International Paper

On-purpose fibre cropping and food cropping are the two means to supply non-tree based, cellulosic fibres for papermaking. For most papermaking applications, on-purpose fibre cropping is an inefficient supply approach. It is unnecessary to set aside arable land for fibre production only. Food cropping with co-production of surplus straw is the most practical and environmentally-benign means to deliver large quantities of papermaking fibres. The farm economy could be improved significantly with the collection and sales of surplus cereal straw for industrial uses. Greenhouse gas emission could be reduced concomitantly through such a practice. - Al Wong, "Socio-Economic and Technical Issues of On-Purpose Fibre Cropping and Food Cropping"

The common assumption about using agricultural residues is that the environmental impacts begin after the crop harvest; impacts from before that point are part of another process for food or grain production. The straw is a waste product that is often mishandled or burned, so we should begin counting the environmental impacts at the transportation and straw harvesting costs. With on-purpose crops, we need to look at the impacts from the very beginning. The on-purpose crops have to catch up from the other stages and account for all their stages of production. - Russell Clark, Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Program, US EPA

In general, the straws - wheat straw/rice straw/flax straw - are inefficient to get to pulp mills. The transportation costs are high. They are not grown for papermaking. They are grown for cereal crops. So a new collection and transportation system needs to be created in order to make these fibers more viable for papermaking. On-purpose crops will be subject to the same inputs and impacts as other crops, but can have the advantage of being grown closer to the pulp mill, thus greatly reducing transportation costs. If you grow crops specifically for papermaking, you then must attribute their environmental impacts, as well as benefits, to the paper produced. For waste fibers, there is a greater attribute-to-impact ratio, because they are not grown to make paper. - Peter Hopkins, Environmental Papers Consultant for Crane Paper Company, Gargan Communications

Evan Paul, a ForestEthics paper campaigner, says, "While it's better to be growing kenaf instead of logging, we want to really look at the whole life cycle of natural fibers. We're not sure of the full impact when it includes clearing land and using pesticides." Paul is, however, bullish on the use of existing agricultural waste in papermaking, including corn and rice husks. "But," he adds, "there hasn't been a lot of development in that field, either." - Jim Motovalli, "The Paper Chase"

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Forest Impacts

LISTENING STUDY: One of the most contentious arguments revolves around whether or not on-purpose crops threaten intact forests. The following comments argue that they do.

Many are concerned with the implications of intensive forestry on habitat value and biodiversity. Indeed, many methods for intensive silviculture compromise forests' ecological values. It must be realized, though, that annual crops require the same considerations. 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.
      Regionally, the biodiversity and habitat quality advantages over agriculture will vary. In some areas silviculture is not feasible. However, much of the loss of natural forest has historically been due to conversion to agricultural use as well as to tree plantations. Land owners in many parts of the country, particularly the South where most paper fiber is grown, might have the option of either silviculture or agriculture. - Richard Denison, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Environmental Defense

Forestry practices are changing, with ever-shorter growth cycles. What had been a 40-year cycle for Douglas fir is now often a seven-year cycle for eucalyptus or other fast-growing species. [Tim] Keating {who co-founded Rainforest Relief in 1989 and still heads the group] believes that if environmentalists push the [paper] industry into a corner by advocating kenaf, the paper giants would shrug their collective shoulders, then clear-cut their vast forest holdings for one-year-cycle kenaf. "As environmentalists, we want to use an annual rotation crop for paper, but we want to buy it from farmers," Keating says. "But that isn't what would actually happen, given the huge paper company land investments. I think, instead, we have to promote the use of agricultural residue instead of virgin fiber, and refuse to accept on-purpose crops."
      Michael Klein, a spokesperson for the American Forest and Paper Association, agrees that a groundswell of interest in kenaf would not preserve trees. "Kenaf is not grown in anywhere near sufficient quantities to meet the demand for paper," he says. "But if the public demanded it you'd see the wholesale conversion of forests to row crops." - Jim Motovalli, "Pulp Friction: Debating the Paper Alternatives"

Pulp and paper companies in the South obtain only about a quarter of their wood from their own lands. They purchase the rest from private landowners. Widespread use of non-wood fibers could reduce demand, and thus, prices paid for wood in this region; lower prices might lead some owners to sell their forestland or convert it to other uses. - Environmental Defense Fund Paper Task Force, White Paper 13, "Non-Wood Fiber Sources"

Since kenaf grows in tropical climates, mainly within 35 degrees north and south of the Equator, additional expansion potential would exist mainly in the southern United States, an area also well suited to plantation silviculture. - Environmental Defense Fund Paper Task Force, White Paper 13, "Non-Wood Fiber Sources"

It is important to recognize that while fiber crops like kenaf must be planted, tended and harvested every year, tree plantations are typically planted and harvested only every 20-45 years. Less frequent soil disturbance can reduce topsoil loss, runoff and the rate of atmospheric loss of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Compared to annual crop plantations, tree plantations also offer: a considerable degree of water quality protection; plant and animal habitat for some species and greater overall species diversity; and recreational value, although not to the extent of natural forests. - Environmental Defense Fund Paper Task Force, White Paper 13, "Non-Wood Fiber Sources"

From the earliest colonial times to the early part of the twentieth century, 2.1 acres of American forest were converted to agriculture for every person added to the population. Globally, conversion to agricultural uses is still the number one cause of deforestation today. Currently, both hemp and kenaf are being offered as alternatives to wood fiber in the manufacture of paper and similar products. Both of these materials are produced in mono-cultural, annual rotation, agricultural systems referred to as "dedicated crops." . . . There are two key issues to consider with these materials: net productivity of the land and the direct environmental impacts associated with fiber production. Evidence suggests that the negative environmental impacts of commercial production of hemp and kenaf fiber can be greater than those attributed to the production of wood fiber. In addition, commercial production of these alternate materials potentially increases the land area required for agriculture, a need that is generally met by the conversion of forestland and other natural environments. - Dr. Jim L. Bowyer, et al, Dovetail Partners

LISTENING STUDY: Many comments argue that forests are not threatened by on-purpose crops.

Some have claimed that on-purpose crops will only replace forested land. However, there are over 75 million idle agricultural acres in the US. If only a portion of this went to growing kenaf, the supply would be adequate. - Tom Rymsza, President, Vision Paper

In 1960 there were some 760 million acres of forested land, about one-third of the land area of the fifty states. Of this a little more than 500 million acres could be classed as commercial - that is, capable of continuously growing timber crops. . . . The area of commercial forests gained several million acres per year as old farmlands reverted to woodlands. At the same time several million acres of commercial forest were lost to airports, highways, urban development, and additions to recreation and wilderness areas. Over the years, these shifts resulted in a net gain of 40 to 50 million acres of potential commercial forest. - Cox 1985

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. Local conditions are important, as are the source and destination of the crop. If we end up getting the tree fiber from more sensitive places, or cutting down rainforest for eucalyptus trees, it's time to stop and think. - Russell Clark, Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Program, US EPA

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 (~80%). These intact forest ecosystems can contain trees aged between 80-1400 years old and are incredibly important for habitat, clean water, and carbon sequestration, and act as biodiversity storehouses.
      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. As many North American and global papers contain Canadian pulp - and this should also be accounted for in any life cycle analysis work - it is important that we are not just comparing on-purpose crops to SE US forests. On-purpose crops that don't work from a life-cycle perspective for SE forests may be fabulous if the alternative source is intact boreal or temperate rainforests. - Nicole Rycroft, Campaigns Director, Markets Initiative

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 SE to pine plantations, requiring an intensive use of herbicides and fertilizers, is one of our greatest challenges to forest protection in this region. On-purpose crops may be a better choice when the alternative is intact or natural forests (in the Boreal, the Southeast, or anywhere). - Kelly Sheehan, National Organizer, Dogwood Alliance

Tom Rymsza, President of KP Products, . . . argues that unlike long-term tree plantation investments, kenaf constitutes an immediate, viable cash crop alternative for many small farms: "The farmer does not decide to plant trees or annual crops. The farmer has equipment (tractors, etc.) and mortgages, and an annual income is required to make payments to keep the farm operation going, and to pay salaries to the hired help who depend on farm operations for jobs and income. The farmer will either plant annual crops or cease conventional farming." He also raises the significance of ownership issues associated with tree plantations versus annual crops from the perspective of the local farm community, observing that "the crop farmer and family are resident members of the rural community with a vested interest in water, air and quality of life issues. . . . [A] tree farm owner may be a timber company or a large paper user like Time, Inc. They buy or lease the land and plant trees. . . . As corporate, absentee owners who view the tree farm as an investment, their interaction with the community is vastly different than the farmer. They are financially able to purchase large tracts of land and wait a number of years to begin realizing income from that investment. This strategy impacts the local community." - Maureen Smith, The U.S. Paper Industry and Sustainable Production

. . . Tom Rymsza of Vision Paper, a dedicated kenaf promoter and entrepreneurial producer, sees the issues somewhat differently [from those who argue that on-purpose crops threaten forests]. "I think we have to get into the non-wood sector in a big way," he says. "The population is growing and so is the demand for paper. The industry's response is to grow trees faster, and that ends up manipulating the natural environment so that we end up with problems like the pine beetle and the gypsy moth. It's taking the natural cycle and throwing it out of balance. The whole paradigm of cutting trees to make paper has a limited lifespan. Some 75 pulp and paper mills have closed in the last five years, and that's partly because of foreign competition - Asian producers have much lower land and labor costs, without environmental regulations." - Jim Motovalli, "Pulp Friction: Debating the Paper Alternatives"

If just 5% of US corn and soy acreage were planted to kenaf, prices for those crops would stabilize, with no net loss to the farmer, since they would be paid a competitive price for the kenaf, without any subsidy. The resulting 7.5 million acres of kenaf could supply more than 1/3 of all U.S. virgin pulp needs. If there was 1/3 less demand for wood fiber for pulp, the approach to forest management would change from intensive management of fast growing trees, to one of mixed species, longer growth patterns, producing timber rather than pulpwood. Mixed species, longer growth patterns would more closely resemble a "forest" than a "tree-farm" and would be better for watershed protection, habitat, and biodiversity. - Tom Rymsza, President, Vision Paper

Some say we will have to cut down the forests to make room to grow kenaf. Others fear kenaf will sterilize soil or increase chemical use. These fears are unfounded, and are promoted by timber industry interests in order to slow or prevent the emergence of kenaf as a competitive fiber source. The American Forest and Paper Association, an organization whose very name reveals its purpose, which is to maintain the link between forests and paper, does not support nonwood alternatives.
For example, in March 1995, Matt Van Hook, Vice President of AF&PA, wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle regarding kenaf that "millions of acres of land would have to be cleared to allow sufficient quantities of the plant to be grown, and that could mean leveling forests." In April 1995, Barry Polsky, a spokesman for AF&PA, was quoted in the Arizona Republic saying, "You have to clear a lot of land for (kenaf). It is a crop. Farmers have to give up land or cut down forests to make room to grow it."
      In December 1995, W. Henson Moore, President and CEO of AF&PA, wrote to the Washington Post that, "Millions of acres of arable land would have to be cleared to grow enough hemp or kenaf to satisfy American and Foreign demand for paper products. Farmers either would reduce acreage devoted to food plants, or forests would have to be leveled, never to be replanted."
      This is simply not true, and works to the detriment of sustainable agriculture and farmers who need new crops now. - Tom Rymsza, President, Vision Paper

I think there is way too much focus on comparisons only to forests in debates on this question. Those currently debating this issue are primarily forest issue activists, and of course the paper industry in North America is built on making paper from forest fiber, so it's no wonder that everyone right now sees the issue primarily, or only, in terms of forests. It is essential to protect the forests and forest activists have been doing profound work in challenging the status quo and searching for more environmentally sound production systems. But this question brings in another dimension of complexity. 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 this 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.
      Frankly, the argument for undermining the value of on-purpose crops for papermaking because they might encourage some forest landholders to abandon trees sounds like a red herring to me. As a relative of a small forest landholder - and a large percentage of the trees that are cut for timber and paper in the U.S. come from small landholdings - it seems to me that they are a wholly different type of person from farmers. I find it difficult to imagine that someone who has invested in forest land, which doesn't need a lot of maintenance, would be very attracted to the idea of cutting down all the trees, hauling out all the stumps, and then becoming a farmer with all its daily risks, responsibilities and crises. So mainly we're faced with paper companies threatening to cut down their plantations to plant on-purpose crops, if they become valuable. How likely is that, realistically?
      First of all, we are not talking about a black-and-white situation in which today we're making paper from trees and tomorrow we're suddenly making all our paper from hemp or kenaf. We don't even have mills that can efficiently pulp those fibers, although a couple have been jury-rigged on occasion to process a small amount. There are whole systems involving pulp mills and farming and transportation that have to be built before those fibers can be considered real competition with forest fiber. This will build slowly and the changes can be integrated positively, if we plan well.
      Second, the paper companies can threaten to abandon their trees, but should we allow this threat to abruptly stop promising agricultural fiber potentials? This is what zoning laws and land-use laws are for. If these are not strong enough, that can be changed.
      Third, isn't it just as likely that small forest landholders and tree plantation owners could be encouraged by a shift in valuation of their trees to allow the trees to grow for a longer time-period in order to become much more valuable timber, rather than cutting them for pulp when they are only a few years old? Rotations are getting shorter and shorter. It used to be that trees were grown for 40, 50, even 80 years before they were cut, and by then they would have grown big enough around to be valued for lumber. Often, a landholder only harvested trees once or twice a generation. Fiber for paper was a byproduct of the lumber, not the primary goal. But now all the focus is shifting to how to turn the trees into cash fast, with rotations of only 15, or even 7, and in China down to 5, years. They're getting closer and closer to annual crops, and less and less like forests, all the time.
      Fourth, my understanding is that often on-purpose crops can be grown as rotation crops, which rebuilds the soil and brings in additional income to a farmer. We do not have to have agricultural mono-crop "plantations." A number of respondents to the Listening Study have pointed out that there is a great deal of idle farmland, often paid for by taxes subsidizing farmers not to grow crops that are overproduced. Doesn't it make sense to use that land to produce something that we do want to use, and that they can sell for income rather than relying on a subsidy? It doesn't seem necessary to cut down more forests in order to plant kenaf or hemp - there's plenty of farmland already available, both idle and rotation. Statements that "lots of forests have been cut for farmland," while true, sound like scare tactics. The fact that, in general, forests have been cut for farmland in the past does not directly relate to whether this particular use would encourage that practice. At best, it warns us to put legal rules and market incentives in place to make sure that doesn't happen.
      The fact is 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 and distribute them - including Living Tree, Vision Paper, Ecosource Paper and, up until recently, Crane Paper Company and Domtar - 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. There have been promising experiments with agricultural residues, and Neenah Paper imports some bagasse from Kimberly-Clark's Mexican mill for some of their paper, but non-cotton ag residues have not yet produced a wide array of consistent printing and writing paper products in North America. While I consider it very worthwhile for people to work on developing ag residue paper fiber potentials, I also think it would be disgraceful to turn our backs on the people who have actually already made nonwood papers in the U.S. a reality. Instead, they deserve encouragement and support to add another dimension to the development of sustainable paper fiber options.
      When Conservatree was a company developing recycled printing and writing papers, it was constantly under attack from the paper industry, which did not want any competition with virgin tree fiber papers, as well as, regrettably, from some environmental groups who endlessly debated whether each step towards producing a sustainable recycled paper was "environmentally perfect" enough - while continuing to buy virgin paper. It takes a lot of imperfection to learn enough and develop enough to create "perfection" in the real world, especially in a cut-throat, monumentally capitalized industry. When people take on the nearly impossible task of developing all the systems necessary to bring an alternative fiber paper to the marketplace (elsewhere, Maureen Smith notes that the obstacles are so enormous that it's a wonder anyone in their right mind would do it), we should be cheering them on, giving them support, recognizing that they are taking our dreams and trying to make them into reality, rather than undermining them at every turn.
      Yes, we should make sure the products and their production methods are not creating environmental and social damage but, except when there is substantiated evidence of that, I think that people who want nonwood options have a responsibility to give the entrepreneurs and inventors space to develop the systems, facilities and knowledge necessary to make real alternatives. It's easy to dream of perfection, much more challenging to create tangible results. - Susan Kinsella, Conservatree

50k acres of Arundo eliminates the need to cut down 1.2 mil acres of forest. Planting Arundo donax does not threaten what would otherwise be tree farms or forest lands; there are currently 60 million acres of corn and we only need 20 million to feed the world. We have corn in bins waiting to be sold. If we planted 1 million acres of Arundo, we wouldn't have to harvest any more trees because the yields are so high. These yields tests have been performed by Perfeco labs in Japan, Econotech in British Columbia, U of W in Seattle, OG Corporation, Nepon, Mishima. - Ernett Altherimer, Founder and Chairman, Nile Fiber

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Impacts on Farmers

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. The opportunity cost of pulping agri-residues is generally low, since they are by-products of food crops which would be grown anyway. However, this depends on the alternative uses of the residues, such as for fuel or animal fodder and bedding. - IIED 1996, Towards A Sustainable Paper Cycle

The most environmentally sound option would be to have mini-mills near the source. For example, if the rice growing in areas of California that are required to cease field burning could supply a nearby mill, that would be ideal. - Jeff Mendelsohn, President, New Leaf Paper

The Association for the Advancement of Industrial Crops states, " . . . 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." - Brochure referenced in Maureen Smith, The U.S. Paper Industry and Sustainable Production

Farmers would be able to grow cash crops and become active members of the economy rather than passive receivers of subsidies. - Punya Chaudhuri, "Sowing the Seeds for a New Fiber Supply," Pulp and Paper International (March 1995) 68-69, referenced in Maureen Smith, The U.S. Paper Industry and Sustainable Production

Except for the root-nematode problem, kenaf is very pest-resistant. However, it is likely that in most areas fertilizers, and in some areas nematicides, herbicides and irrigation will be used. . . . The need for pesticide application is very location-specific. . . . When added to an existing crop rotation, kenaf can reduce pesticide requirements of other crops, improve soil conditions and thus increase the overall sustainability of a crop rotation. - Environmental Defense Fund Paper Task Force, White Paper 13, "Non-Wood Fiber Sources"

Hemp is susceptible to only a few pests, including some seed and soil-borne fungi and root-knot nematodes. The nematodes can be managed through plant breeding. Thus, hemp can be grown without or with only minimal use of pesticides.
      Used as a rotational crop, hemp can reduce pesticide requirements of other crops grown in the same rotation because it is an effective weed suppressor and reduces some major soil pathogens. Because of its well developed rooting system, it also has a beneficial effect on the soil structure. - Environmental Defense Fund Paper Task Force, White Paper 13, "Non-Wood Fiber Sources"

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Papermaking Qualities

LISTENING STUDY: The environmental impacts of agricultural residues vs. on-purpose crops are very important. But the ability to make each type of fiber into good paper is equally important and, ultimately, will be the determining factor in which fibers are used.

Straw Fiber Characteristics: Straw must be harvested in a time frame consistent with the harvest of the grain. Depending on regional practices, the straw may be cut and baled at the same time as the grain crop, or it may be harvested in a subsequent operation. The storage conditions and moisture content of the straw are important because it is susceptible to molds and rot, and subject to spontaneous combustion. Weathered straw consumes more chemicals for pulping and yields less pulp, with relatively lower strength.
      Fibers from wheat and rice straw are short (0.5 - 1.5 mm) and weak when compared to wood fiber. On their own, they cannot provide the technical properties demanded by modern pulp and paper manufacturers, nor can they meet the demands of the printing and packaging industries. While straw fibers could supplement wood fiber in some of the less demanding grades of paper and packaging (such as the corrugated section of a cardboard box), and when used in small percentages, could be incorporated into higher quality applications, they do not possess the necessary physical attributes to replace tree fiber in the majority of paper applications.
      Straw contains significant amounts of silica, ranging approximately from 3-14%, and ash depending on type and regional growing conditions. In the process of pulping, silica is separated from the fiber and appears in the black liquor (waste stream) in the form of sodium silicate and/or other complex siliceous compounds. The black liquor also contains the noncellulose portion of the straw (lignin, pentosans and other degradable carbohydrates), and the process chemicals and water. Heat is used to reduce the water content. Upon evaporation, the resulting fluid is quite thick and difficult to process in a chemical recovery system. This silica accumulates and causes scaling in evaporator tubes and other parts of the recovery system, reducing their efficiency and adding to maintenance costs.
      Corn Stalk Fiber Characteristics: There is no readily available evidence of current commercial use in the world. Historically, corn stalks were used to produce low grade wrapping paper and board in Austria around 1880.
      Corn stalks' cellulose content (35-45%) ranges significantly depending on variety and regional conditions. Combined with the high lignin content (14-34%) and nodes and pith, pulp yields of 30-40% are optimistically misleading because the resulting pulp is dominated by non-fibrous elements (epidema, pith, barrel type vessels). Such a low pulp yield indicates a high cost of processing. The environmental compliance characteristics are challenging because there will be roughly two tons of waste stream solids for every one ton of pulp produced.
      Fibers from corn are short (1.2-1.4 mm) and would be roughly comparable to a hardwood fiber in length and width. The strength properties reported are poor, and during refining the freeness decreases quickly and the drainage rate decreases even faster than with straw. - Tom Rymsza, President, Vision Paper

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Impact on Sustainability Systems

LISTENING STUDY: In 2004, recycled content makes up 37% of the fiber used to make paper and packaging in the U.S. (Only about 5% is used in printing and writing papers, but considerably higher percentages are used in newsprint, tissue and packaging.) Most environmental groups see recycled content as the foundation for an environmentally sustainable paper production system. But there are some questions about how well non-wood fibers can be recycled, no matter what type of fiber is used to make the original paper. See Question 52 for a fuller discussion of this issue.

When paper and cardboard containing straw fiber are mixed with wood-based paper and cardboard in waste collection systems, then processed under the same conditions as the wood-content waste in a recycling mill, the weaker straw fibers break down more easily than wood fiber, and act as a contaminant, slowing the drainage time of the pulp, and producing weaker products. All fibers become shorter in the recycling process; since straw fibers are short to begin with, recycling them will make them too short to be retained in the process, and the shortest will pass through screens along with other process rejects. This will result in a lower yield for a recycling mill, which will have negative economic impacts. - Tom Rymsza, President, Vision Paper

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