Alternative Fibers for Paper—Tree Free in 2003?
by Jean English
Copyright ©1998. This article may not be reproduced in part or in whole without permission of the author.
"I hope to see hemp used soon for more than one purpose on this campus," joked Dean Jim Carignan of Bates College in his opening remarks at the April 4 Alternative Paper Conference. He added that the next millennium "will be owned not by the government, not buy business, but by NGOs (nongovernmental organizations)" and said that if these organizations rally around particular issues, they can "really have an impact." Events such as the Alternative Paper Conference do just that. "The real power is not just in the people," he concluded, "but in coalitions, networks."
Forming such coalitions was the goal of CURE (Compassion Unlimited—Respecting Everyone) in organizing this conference: "to bring students, farmers, environmentalists, government officials, alternative paper producers, printers and others concerned about paper production together to learn more about alternative fibers and their potential benefits for Maine’s economy and environment."
Carignan was followed by keynote speaker Andy Kerr of Joseph, Oregon. Kerr worked for the Oregon Natural Resources Council from 1976 to 1996, including the final two years as executive director. This group and Kerr are well known for having raised the northern spotted owl issue in the Northwest. Kerr is now on the board of the North American Industrial Hemp Council (NAIHC), a coalition of businesses, environmentalists and farmers that is working nationwide to educate the public about industrial hemp fiber. He is also consulting on the role of natural carbon sequestration in protecting both the climate and forests.
In his talk, entitled "Tree-free in ‘03--Seeing the Trees for the Forest," Kerr made the case against using trees for paper—a relatively recent use for trees in the history of paper making. "Trees are the alternative source for paper," he claimed.
Unfortunately they are the primary "alternative" source right now, and that situation may get worse before it gets better. "The Food and Agriculture Organization," said Kerr, "says there will be a 90% increase in demand for paper products by the year 2010. The forest shortage is going to get worse." That demand assumes a population increase trend and a consumption explosion "that simply can’t go on."
Limits of a Mining Economy
"Why not make paper out of trees?" he asked. He responded that our forests provide ecosystem services. They are watersheds and wildlife reserves, provide scenic value, keep carbon out of the air and ameliorate the effects of global warming, for instance. For this ecosystem to be effective, we need many well-distributed forests, and some of those forests must include old-growth stands. Kerr was adamant that Maine needs more public land to ensure that these ecosystem services are available.
Regarding carbon storage, he said the forests of the Northwest contain more biomass, and therefore more carbon, than tropical rainforests. "A lot is in the small branches, needles and underground," said Kerr. To counteract global climate change, we need to not only reduce emissions, but also to remove excess carbon from the air, and "trees are the most rational, efficient way to take carbon out of the air and store it." With this in mind, he added, "We need to think of trees as used for products designed to last only as long as the tree did. Now we use trees wastefully because our economy rewards waste."
Two "advances" that have allowed us to waste, or "mine," these storehouses of carbon, said Kerr, are chemical pulping and the chainsaw. While trees are usually referred to as a renewable resource, most forestry really uses a mining extraction model of economics, exploiting something it did not pay for. "It does not pay to grow a tree for 250 years" and then harvest it, said Kerr, "but it pays to mine a tree that’s that old." This cannot go on forever, however, because "trees grow slower than money, so industries will look at trees very differently as soon as they are finished mining them." No business would "grow a tree and wait 250 years for a return on its investment."
That time hasn’t come yet, though. Although redwoods ("millennium fibers"), Douglas firs ("centennial fibers") and plantation-grown trees ("decadial fibers") are being harvested in the Northwest, the trend is toward harvesting younger plants, said Kerr. "We are moving toward annual fibers." One push in that direction comes from the government, which regulates a plantation of trees that is over 10 years old under the Forest Practices Act but regulates younger plantations as farms—which have fewer restrictions that forests. Thus, poplar-cottonwood hybrids have been bred that can be harvested in eight or nine years. Can annual fibers be far in the distance? "There is only one use of trees by people that is not replaceable" by annual fibers, said Kerr: "musical instruments."
In addition to moving to the use of annual fibers, Kerr said that we should be recycling more. "Our recycling rates for paper are a little less than what they were during World War II. Often the uses of paper can be measured in seconds—wrapping a hamburger, for instance."
A Long-Term Answer
Industrial hemp is the annual fiber that Kerr is promoting. His interest in hemp began many years ago, when he was lobbying at the Oregon Capitol for a forest of 600- to 800-year-old Douglas firs to become a state park. Foresters and mills workers were lobbying against the park. One logger wanted to engage Kerr in a debate, so he asked him, "Hey, how ya’ gonna wipe your ass?" "I think he meant, ‘with what,’" said Kerr. As a quick retort, Kerr looked up at the guy’s logging cap and answered, "Your hat."
On thinking about the question later, Kerr realized that "that wasn’t really a long-term answer." So he researched a long-term answer and came up with hemp. "I thought that there must be a fiber as good or better that does not have the political liability of hemp.
There wasn’t." When he learned about the many uses of hemp, he became convinced that "now I don’t think we should be logging much of any forest. That should be our goal for the next two decades."
To counter the political liability of hemp, he points out that industrial hemp has very low amounts of THC (the psychoactive ingredient in Cannabis). "If you smoke it, you just get a headache." Another cannabinoid, CBD, in industrial hemp is present in greater proportions than is THC and it is an antidote to the latter. "You can drink listerine and get drunk," he said for comparison, "but the side effects are too severe. People don’t do it." To those who say that growers could hide recreational or medicinal hemp in with their industrial hemp plots, he says, "You can tell the difference between sweet corn and silage corn." Industrial hemp is grown close together to maximize stalk and fiber growth.
That grown for medicinal or recreational purposes is usually grown farther apart and is allowed to flower.
Thirty countries allow the growth of industrial hemp, and 5,000 to 10,000 acres of hemp were scheduled to be planted in Ontario this spring. To push for legalization of industrial hemp cultivation in this country, Crane & Co., the North American Industrial Hemp Council, ReThink Paper and many industry, academic, agricultural and other groups jointly filed a petition with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to reclassify hemp so that it is not a regulated substance and to move the jurisdiction over industrial hemp to the United States Department of Agriculture, which would control distribution of the seeds, licensing of growers, and so forth. (To support this petition, write to Thomas A.
Constantine, Administrator, Drug Enforcement Agency, Dept. of Justice, Washington DC 20537 and ask that the DEA initiate rulemaking that would enable the Administration to permit the domestic production of industrial hemp pursuant to Section 201 of the Controlled Substance Act.)
Kerr predicted that the government will sit on the petition, then the petitioners will go to court to force the DEA to act on it. "Given that 30 other countries can [grow industrial hemp], our lawyers are pretty confident. Ninety-nine percent of the money that goes to government and law enforcement is to eradicate stuff that’s left from the ‘30s: That’s industrial hemp. They use it to justify [their programs]; they call it marijuana."
A new opponent in the fight to legalize industrial hemp is the Association of Drug Test Manufacturers, said Kerr. The "drug czar" is another opponent, saying that legalizing industrial hemp would "send the wrong message" and that industrial hemp is "not an economic crop." However, Kerr pointed out, no other crop is made illegal because it is "not an economic crop.
"I’m optimistic," said Kerr, "that in a couple of years we’ll be growingindustrial hemp in the United States. The upside of the global economy is that U.S. farmers are going to say, ‘If Canadians can grow it, why can’t we?’"
One of the benefits of hemp is that it contains less lignin than trees, so it can be bleached easily without chlorine—and without the resultant dioxin pollutants, and the mercury used to make chlorine. It can be grown in rotation with other crops, leaving a field weed free for the subsequent crop (due to its dense planting and shading). Rotation with wheat in England raised the wheat yield by 10 percent. Rotating with soybeans increased the yield of that crop because hemp is detrimental to nematodes that affect soybeans.
"One paper company says it wants to convert 45% of its raw material to hemp within five years if hemp can be grown in the United States. Consumer demand is the issue," said Kerr. "The Weyerhaeuser plants in Europe got rid of much more chlorine than they did in the United States because of consumer demands for chlorine-free paper. The [recently retired] head of new products research with the largest paper company in the world (International Paper) was shocked and mortified that they were chipping old growth forests. He is on the board of the North American Industrial Hemp Council. He said that within the company, they were ending their hunter-gatherer phase and going into their agrarian phase. Everything is pointing them in the direction of annual fibers on farmland. The cost of producing annual fibers is going down, the cost of timber is going up. This man realized those lines would cross someday. He asked economists at International Paper if these lines cross. They compared Southern pine chips with kenaf— and found that the lines crossed in 1995 on the price of the raw product alone." (This does not account for costs of converting to tree-free paper.)
Yesterday’s Forests, Today’s Pollution
After Kerr, Jim St. Pierre of RESTORE: The North Woods held up some of the "throwaways" that he found at his local recycling center: phone books ("Bins full of them...new ones!"), business magazines, publications with the sex theme ("a real trend"), a hefty copy of Travel. "This used to be a forest," he said as he dropped Travel to the floor with a resounding thunk. "I think I walked through it one time." He also held up products from the grocery store that represented the sad waste of old growth and even younger forests: napkins, paper towels, bathroom tissue. St. Pierre outlined four methods for making our world more sustainable:
1. Reduce consumption (and population growth);
2. Use tree substitutes and recycle more;
3. Manage forests sustainably where we are logging;
4. Preserve and restore more wild places.
Anne Hagstrom of the Natural Resources Council of Maine talked about the Maine Toxics Action Coalition—formerly the Dioxin Coalition—and its efforts to get Maine paper companies to convert to totally chlorine-free (TCF) paper. "The paper industry is the biggest polluter in Maine," she said. Although "we didn’t win the TCF paper debate in the legislature," she said, "people learned what dioxin is doing to fish, wildlife and people" through that campaign.
Hagstrom talked about the sources of dioxins—municipal waste incineration; medical waste incineration; Kraft paper mills; and pesticide manufacturing—and the dangers of those dioxins, including cancer, birth defects, endometriosis and many others. "The EPA says we’re all carrying a body burden of dioxins in us now," she said.
Eagles along the Penobscot River, below Lincoln Pulp and Paper, are reproducing about 40% less than they should be because of pollutants. The state warns that people should not eat more than one meal of fish a month from waters below paper mills that use chlorine bleaching, but that warning "is very poorly publicized," said Hagstrom—a fact that the NRMC hopesto change this year.
On the positive side, Hagstrom said that paper mills can make paper without making dioxin in the process and that groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons, the Green Party, MOFGA and others are working together to bring attention and public awareness to this issue. She cited Saab and Patagonia as two companies dedicated to using chlorine-free paper.
"Can our buying habits change the industry?" asked Hagstrom. "The recycled paper market took years to develop. The government has not shown the will to do anything in this regard. It’s up to us as consumers to demand it."
Many Fibers Needed
Next Meghan Clancy-Hepburn, Campaigns Director for the Resource Conservation Alliance in Washington, D.C., talked about the work of that nonprofit organization in educating the public about alternatives to virgin wood fiber use. "Almost half of the world’s original forest cover is gone," she said. In the United States, "only 5% of our natural forest cover remains." Meanwhile, the United States "consumes about 30% of the world’s paper output," and paper consumption represents only one-third of the wood consumption in the United States: the bulk goes into buildings. "We didn’t reach the current levels of consumption because we were forced to by a totalitarian regime," she said, suggesting that we could reverse these levels.
Clancy-Hepburn was not advocating a simple shift from one fiber to another. "No single fiber will ever provide a solution to the great demand in this country. We need to reduce overall consumption. We need to reduce the demand for paper at the same time that we increase the demand for tree-free paper."
She cited two ways to meet that increased demand: through crops such as flax, kenaf, hemp, sisal and cotton that are grown specifically for fibers; and through using agricultural residues, such as straws and stalks from wheat, rice and other grains. These stalks are often burned or landfilled. "There is a lot of fiber out there. Folks barely know what to do with it."
Clancy-Hepburn said that waste straws are now selling for $45 per ton. "In some areas, farmers can make more off of the waste than off of the crop!"
Because of the inefficiency of trucking a product as bulky as straw, she believes that paper mills must be within 50 miles of farms. This would foster greater interaction between the farmer and the factory owner.
"Paper mills that rely on forests for fibers will go out of business," said Clancy-Hepburn.
"That’s just a fact—unless they shift to another fiber now. If Maine wants to maintain its status as the number two paper making state, it must look at alternative fibers. Forests are running out."
She said that flax, barley and oats were the most likely crops to be grown for fiber in Maine—especially in Aroostook County, where they are already grown—and that right now the straw from barley and oats is either plowed under or used for animal bedding.
While noting the need to return organic matter to the soil, she said that Maine needs "a regional study of the volume of waste that can be removed. SARE (a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant) may be the ideal vehicle for the study."
Regarding hemp, Clancy-Hepburn said that farmers can net up to $500 per acre growing it, and that NAFTA and GATT recognize hemp as a nondrug commodity. Growing it would add diversity to farms. "In the last two years, lawmakers in 10 states enacted or introduced legislation on studying hemp. You can advocate for a local study at the state level," she said. In Vermont, she related, a bill recommending a study of the feasibility of growing hemp passed in the legislature but was vetoed by the governor.
Peter Hopkins, representing Crane & Company, said that Crane had been making paper with various fibers for almost 200 years, and its product is considered the best in the world. It makes U.S. currency paper out of cotton and flax and recycles old currency by combining it with cotton rag. Its cotton rag paper is well known for its quality. It makes a "blue jeans" paper: Levi Strauss separates its cotton waste, Crane makes the waste into paper, and Levi buys it back for internal use. It works cooperatively with farmers to make kenaf paper. At one time, Crane did buy a forest and make paper from tree fibers— until the company ran out of trees.
"There are no excuses" for not using "alternative" fibers for paper, said Hopkins, refuting virtually all of the arguments given by industrial foresters for not switching to alternatives. Crane makes many kinds of papers for many uses; its paper is sold through 3000 retailers; the company is represented by major paper merchants throughout the world.
Because Crane’s paper is top-of-the-line, "neither Crane nor its customers considers paper a commodity. It’s valued..." said Hopkins. "It’s relatively expensive for tree-free papers.
It will take a while and a changed paradigm for the price to change. [The price] has to do with how we value paper, too—That’s a whole other discussion.
"Tree-free paper gives us an opportunity to demonstrate who we are individually and collectively," Hopkins concluded. He challenged conference participants to imagine writing a letter to a loved one. "Dear Mom," he began. "I am writing to you on paper made from __________ (fill in your choice: trees; underwear cuttings and kenaf; etc.). I am using this paper because ____________________(I want a more sustainable future for our farms; having a healthy environment is important for me; etc.)."
"Think about how you would write those two sentences every time you write on a piece of paper."
Heather Spalding, speaking for MOFGA, said that Aroostook County holds the most potential for growing alternative fibers. Farming acreage there is down from 500,000 just 40 years ago to 200,000 now. She foresees specialty markets for high end kinds of papers as the most probable niche for our state. "We probably won’t be making hemp papers for copy machines, but for legal documents, artists’ papers," she suggested.
Will Sugg of the Forest Ecology Network (FEN) said that we could do much better at recycling paper: About 70% of the paper we use is not recycled. Of that, 20% is burned as municipal waste and 80% is sent to landfills. He also talked about the pros and cons of alternative fibers (they disturb the soil when they are cultivated, and they are more difficult to ship and store than logs) versus virgin tree fibers (trees provide wildlife habitat and recreation while they’re growing) versus recycling (which does not disturb the soil, as cultivating annual fiber crops does). Sugg asked whether buying paper made with alternative fibers would cut into the market for recycled paper. "Hemp and kenaf are good substitutes for trees," he said, "but they are not necessary for postconsumer recycled paper. I see a lot of potential for fibers for agriculture—but can alternative fibers preserve forests? I can’t see it yet." As elaboration on this point, he noted "a disconnect between the sustainable paper cycle and companies that own the land and ship products out of the loop." Even if we increase the amount of recycled and alternative fiber paper that we use, he believes industrial foresters will continue to mine forests for other purposes and for papers for export.
Two Percent for Hemp
Andy Kerr summarized some of his thoughts as the conference drew to a close. Regarding the cost of shipping alternative fibers, he said, "Oil is as cheap as it’s ever been. It’s cheaper than bottled water. The cost of transportation is an insignificant cost of doing business (if negative externalities are not included).
"We need an alternative strategy for our forests," he continued. "I don’t think low-impact forestry pays either. I don’t think we can rely on industrial ownership to do that. We must increase the amount of public land.
"Look at carbon accounting," he suggested. "It could be very cost-effective to mitigate carbon emissions by buying cutover timber lands." That land could be turned over to public agencies for management. (Although public agencies can mismanage land, as one member of the audience pointed out, Kerr said that these agencies have a much better track record than industry.)
He added that while he hated to recommend plastic for anything, he couldn’t help thinking that it could substitute for some inane uses of wood. "Forty percent of the hardwoods in the United States are used for pallets," he said, "and each pallet is used 1.7 times" before it’s discarded. He thought that the plastic milk crate model, in which a product is used repeatedly, would be more suitable for pallets. One member of the audience noted that plastic could be made from hemp.
"All of us [working on different parts of the problem] have got to be talking to each other," Kerr continued. "If we want to reduce wood consumption in the United States by 75%, and assuming no increase in recycling, we would need 2% of America’s farmland.
We have a lot of farmland out of production—and some of that should be out of production because of slope and other factors. But some could grow hemp.
"If hemp is put into rotation with crops, it may reduce the chemical needs [fertilizers and pesticides used on farms], which affects the whole cost-of-food equation."
Cullen Stuart of the Business Alliance for Commerce in Hemp asked where people could get hard numbers about hemp production and profit potential. Kerr recommended the North American Industrial Hemp Council (www.naihc.org). "There are intriguing numbers," he said, "but it’s all hypothetical until we can grow it."
Compassion Unlimited—Respecting Everyone (CURE)
Heather Burt, Director
PO Box 100
Edgecomb ME 04556
CURE organizes a quarterly alternative paper buying cooperative for
businesses and individuals. The first order, placed in the fall of 1997,
saved the 20
participants over $1000.
The Larch Company, L.L.C.
Joseph OR 97846
Natural Resources Council of Maine
271 State St.
Augusta ME 04330
Maintains an updated list of paper manufacturers who produce totally chlorine-free papers.
North American Industrial Hemp Council
PO Box 259329
Madison WI 53725-9329
Resource Conservation Alliance
PO Box 19367
Washington DC 20036
RCA has a list of publications about the problems associated with industrial forestry and about growing and using alternative crops for paper and other products.
ReThink Paper, a project of Earth Island Institute
The Flood Building
870 Market St., Suite 1011
San Francisco, CA 94102