Taking Recycling One Step Further

Recycling paper has become a regular activity of modern life–a good habit that seems second nature to most of us by now. Even big business has embraced it, judging from the shelves and catalogs of the major office supply outlets. They have wisely realized that there is money in being “green.” Environmentally conscious consumers can now choose from a wide selection of copying and printing papers with anywhere from 35% to 100% recycled content.

But is this enough? The computer age was supposed to usher in the “paperless” society, but that’s just not our reality. Filing cabinets still bulge with paper and people will continue to print hard copies of e-mails and other documents for the purpose of verification, backup and security. In fact, we are consuming more agriculture paper paper than ever before, recycled or otherwise. And we will continue to voraciously consume paper in the future: it is estimated that world demand of pulp and paper will rise to 620 million tons by the year 2010.

So can we do better? History, actually, tells us that we can. In fact, we North Americans have taken the notion of paper from trees for granted and rarely think that there are other proven sources (and technologies) for making paper. We can take a step beyond recycling–as necessary and as important as that is–even beyond the progressive and ethical policies that protect old growth forests from exploitation. We can begin to seriously consider other ways of producing paper and one of those time-honored ways is paper from plant fiber, not wood pulp. A number of plant fibers are poised to be our next alternative paper: ramie, jute, hemp, flax and kenaf.

I first saw a greeting card made from kenaf about five years ago. I bought the card for the gorgeous graphics, but I later sought out this greeting card line for the intrinsic quality and beauty of its paper. The weight, colour and feel of the card rivaled that of any high-end, non-recycled, glossy card stock on the market. And now five years later, this card has not yellowed or discolored in any way. It is still as exquisite as the day I bought it. It is 100% tree-free paper. It was made from kenaf.

Kenaf was news to me, but there is nothing new about kenaf. Kenaf was long used for pulp production in Bengal and came to the attention of the West probably in the late 19th century when it was noted in the Dictionary of the Economic Plants of India as a strong fiber, superior in strength to even the paper from which the Bank of England notes were made. Generally speaking, non-wood plant fibers have been used to make paper for centuries. Today, kenaf, jute and other similar fibers are cultivated in southeast Asia and the Far East. Many farmers in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal and Thailand depend on these fiber crops for their living.

Kenaf is a short-day, high-yield plant that is West African in origin, which means, of course, that it requires warmth and sunshine. It has specific sowing times and a long growing period–the kenaf seeds usually require an additional 60-90 frost-free days to reach maturity in order to germinate. With its specific climatic requirements, its planting range is somewhat limited; however, there are regions in temperate zones where kenaf can be cultivated. In the United States the cultivation of kenaf is not only a possibility, it is already a reality. Kenaf can grow in areas that traditionally grow cotton and tobacco. It is currently being cultivated in Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began research on kenaf as early as 1940, and twenty years later in 1960, the kenaf plant was selected from 500 other plants as the most promising non-wood fiber alternative for the manufacture of paper. By 1986, the USDA and Kenaf International, a joint venture company, had initiated the Kenaf Demonstration Project. The objective was to show that kenaf pulp was a viable alternative to wood pulp. In terms of cost-efficiency, quality and usefulness kenaf aced the test when a year later the project successfully proved its point: 82% kenaf (18% bleached) newsprint was tested at four American newspapers. Making commercially viable paper out of kenaf was indeed possible. While kenaf had been traditionally used for packing and sacking material, it was becoming increasingly clear that it made a fine paper alternative too: newsprint, high-quality writing paper and specialty papers can all be made from kenaf.

A 1993 article appeared in E: Environmental Magazine with the optimistic title, “Tree Free by 1993?” Fast forward to 2007. Kenaf is still not a household name. Recycling is king, not kenaf–nor any of the other plant fiber alternatives to wood pulping for that matter. We recycle, but we pay very little attention to finding the ultimate alternative to using trees for making paper products. There has been very little progress in telling the world about this crop and its myriad uses. And that’s a real shame because the benefits derived from growing, distributing and making paper products out of kenaf are so obvious that even consumers who are not specialists or researchers cannot dispute them. Nowadays, there is an even greater urgency to find the best possible solutions to our ever-worsening environmental situation. Just as alternatives to fossil fuels are being aggressively researched, alternatives to wood pulping for paper products must also be pursued with equal commitment. Funding, governmental support, and raising awareness that could change attitudes, perspectives and habits are all required now.

What makes kenaf such an attractive choice? The reasons are numerous. First, as a crop plant that can be grown and harvested annually, the biological efficiency of kenaf is superior to the forest-based supply chain that begins with tree propagation and ends years later with logging. Simply put, using kenaf as the raw material instead of wood pulp will reduce the overall cost of making paper from the outset. Second, the actual pulping process for kenaf is more environmentally friendly: hydrogen peroxide is used for the bleaching process as opposed to the more harmful substance, chlorine, which is required to brighten pulp derived from wood. Furthermore, the kenaf pulping process uses less energy (about 30%), mainly because kenaf has a lower lignin content than wood. Less pressure and less heat are needed to break it down. But this low lignin content offers up yet another environmental bonus: smaller amounts of chemical are actually required to bleach the kenaf pulp. This is good news all around, especially for our lakes, rivers and streams.

And as if the above reasons were not enough, kenaf, despite its limited growing range in northern climes, can be grown all year in tropical areas or become a “summer” crop in temperate and sub-tropical zones. It also prospers in a variety of soils, so on a global scale, kenaf has the potential of being produced regularly and abundantly to sustain a constant supply should it become more in demand. In addition to all of these positive reasons, it has been reported that the conversion of existing mills to kenaf paper producing mills can be carried out with reasonable ease. And since kenaf can be blended with either recycled paper or even virgin pulp, conversions can be transitional and phased over time.


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