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Remember - to use paper, any paper, is to have an impact on our environment!
Our greater goal should to be to promote reduction of consumption.


Alternative Fiber in Paper:
The Impact on Recycling and Pollution Reduction

by Rick Meis

Alternative fibers. Just what are they? Most people tend to concentrate on the popular ones - hemp and kenaf. There are others. Garbage, for instance, or agricultural by-products. Waste is a great alternative fiber from which to make paper. Recycled paper.

The use of alternative plant fiber to make paper seems like a good idea. To buy and use these papers also seems like a good idea. But these plants are not necessarily the only answer to finding a true alternative to the highly destructive and polluting virgin paper industry as we know it today. Hemp and kenaf are being touted as great environmental alternatives to using trees for making paper. The question arises: alternatives to what? Disappointingly, they appear to be alternatives for high post-consumer recycled paper. What is happening is not the substitution of hemp and kenaf papers for paper made from trees, but the substitution of alternative fiber paper for recycled paper. This hurts more than you may think. Many people who want to buy hemp paper are those very people who would otherwise be using high post-consumer recycled papers. This can be evidenced in the pushes in the marketplace hemp and kenaf are getting in lieu of recycled paper. Businesses and organizations that use hemp and kenaf are ones that would otherwise use post-consumer recycled paper.

This essay will examine some of the impacts of hemp and kenaf paper on recycling and pollution reduction, and propose some viable solutions. References to recycled paper mean real recycled paper made with high quantities of post-consumer waste and either unbleached or whitened with more benign methods. This type of recycled paper is available today. The common 50% recycled, 10% post-consumer paper bleached by standard chlorine methods is not considered recycled paper in this treatise.

A Short History

Before paper, such items as clay tablets, leaves, tree bark, and skins were utilized for recorded communication. Egyptians used papyrus as a substrate for writing as early as 2200 B.C. "Paper" has been made for about two thousand years now. Some of the fiber sources for making early papers included hemp, tree bark, and "recycled" old clothes and rags. As paper use grew, so did the list of fiber sources, from grasses to mulberry to bamboo. Wastepaper was actually used in making paper as early as the 11th century A.D. in Japan.

In Europe, with it's later steps into papermaking, old clothes and rags were used almost exclusively. The early 1800's brought a short-lived usage of hemp, flax, tree bark, and straw to make paper in England. Cloth rag fiber appeared to be easier and better, and the others were abandoned. Starting in 1840, hemp was used to make "manila" paper in the U.S.

Trees as a source of paper fiber have only been used for a little over a hundred years. It was the rapidly increasing demand for paper brought about by the printing press that necessitated huge amounts of a consistent fiber, the niche which a seemingly endless supply of trees could fill. As we know, the end may be in sight.

Today in the U.S., we use an average of 800 pounds of paper for each person per year, with a huge amount of this ending up in landfills.

Hemp and Kenaf and Post-Consumer Waste Paper

You may have heard and read some of the advantages of using hemp. It is a long, strong fiber; good for a variety of uses. Hemp makes excellent rope and clothing, and hemp oil makes a good base for paint, ink and more. Unfortunately, hemp's relationship to marijuana has made it a socially and politically unacceptable fiber source in this country since World War Two.

Kenaf, a relative of okra and cotton, has a very resilient, long fiber and its bamboo-like stalks grow very rapidly. One current use is to make booms for oil spill clean-up. It has been recognized for over 40 years as a high quality fiber for paper production. It makes good paper.

As annual crops, hemp and kenaf could be farmed to produce fiber rather than "mined" as are the world's over-exploited forests. Because they do not have lignins (a non-cellulose component of trees) to be removed and disposed of, these plants will be a less polluting substitute for paper than trees. Kenaf may be able to be rotated with other crops , requiring less new land for production.

Hemp and kenaf are being touted as great environmental alternatives to using trees for making paper. The question arises: alternatives to what? Disappointingly, they appear to be alternatives for high post-consumer recycled paper. Alternative fiber paper as a substitute for recycled paper hurts our ability to take waste paper to the recycling center. Recycling is a loop. We save and take our waste paper to the recycling center and we must buy paper made with that post-consumer material. This is the recycling equation.

Buying hemp or kenaf paper instead of high post-consumer paper works against waste stream reduction. Forty percent of our garbage is paper (5% of this is junk mail). Only through the purchase and use of high post-consumer recycled papers can we truly address waste stream reduction. Without consumer demand for these recycled papers the whole cycle breaks down.

In other words, if we want the recycling center to take our waste paper, there must be a demand for the products that will be made from it. Post-consumer waste - the stuff you and I take to the recycling center - doesn't get used by magic. Currently only a small percentage of recoverable post-consumer waste paper is actually used (contrary to the misleading information of the American Forest and Paper Association - the mouthpiece of the timber industry) and this must pick up to keep recycling viable. The consumer plays a significant role. The recycling industry is having a hard time due to low values on waste paper. Many packages and products labeled "recycled" are not made with post-consumer materials but only contain factory wastes which have always been used.

If you are not using post-consumer recycled paper, you are not recycling your waste paper.

Secondary Impacts: Pollution and Land Use

Real recycled paper can address not only waste, but water and air pollution and energy use as well. Keep in mind, however, that not all recycled paper is created equal. The post-consumer content and the bleaching process are the keys to environmental soundness. Most recycled paper - defined with terms like pre-consumer, recovered, and wastepaper - essentially do nothing. You are being taken for a ride. These fake recycled papers actually can do more harm than good and hurt recycling by creating a false sense of doing right without creating demand and completing the recycling equation.

We face a crisis with waste in this country right now. Landfills are closing and a war rages over the interstate transport of waste. Recycled paper reduces solid waste in landfills and can help reduce the cost of landfilling other garbage. By recovering and using waste paper, we will promote other recovery and recycling this can result in even more compact and efficient landfills.

Recycled paper reduces energy consumption up to 70% over processing virgin pulp, and subsequently reduces the cumulative impacts of energy production. It reduces dependence on diminishing natural resources. Post-consumer waste is a source of raw material not being used efficiently (the U.S. uses 200 billion pounds of paper a year). It requires 55% less water to process than virgin wood pulp, reduces water pollution by 35% or more, and eliminates many of the high-end toxic pollutants.

The production of hemp, kenaf and other alternative fiber paper will have many advantages in production of paper over the making of paper from trees. Water and energy consumption, as well as chemical use, would be less with these fibers. It is still more efficient to make paper from old paper than to have to make it from a virgin material - no matter what that material is.

Alternative fiber sources may create many of the same environmental problems associated with other agribusiness monocultures: increased consumption of water, application of fertilizers and pesticides, and soil depletion. We must keep these real concerns in mind. As an example, the agricultural production of cotton is fraught with these problems which has led to questions being raised about alternative methods of farming it. But it is not being done. With kenaf and hemp, we may be opening ourselves and our environment up to similar problems.

It may be possible to grow organic kenaf for paper. Kenaf paper is already very expensive and it will not be practical in an economically driven society if production costs are raised rather than lowered. We need products that will be used widely if we are to make a difference.

When it comes to farms, which is more acceptable: fields of hemp and kenaf or large tree plantations? The annual crop (of hemp or kenaf) would take less acreage. However, a managed forest would provide some amount of habitat for wildlife, would be a watershed, and could offer a forest-park setting for human use that agricultural land does not. Which is better, a smaller acreage of intensively farmed hemp or kenaf, or a larger area of tree farm on a rotation for pulp production? Or taking waste paper out of the waste stream?

Some hemp paper is made in the Far East and shipped halfway around the globe to this country, which raises social as well as environmental questions. A more environmentally benign alternative is a regionally-made, high post-consumer waste (PCW), secondarily chlorine free (SCF) paper for a third the price of hemp paper. Two are available, one of which is half agri-pulp and half post-consumer waste. These papers address waste stream, energy, water quality and toxic pollution issues.

Deinking Recycled Paper

A major issue which must be addressed is the deinking waste from the recycled paper. Clay fillers, short fibers, and ink solids are the major components of this waste. Industry averages are about 80-85% recovered fiber, 15-20% waste. This residue is only as toxic as the material that goes on the paper being recycled, such as the coloration in the inks and dyes and the plastic polymers in copy machine and laser print. This should become a consumer issue about what paper and printing system is being used in the first place, and the cumulative effects.

Mechanical and flotation deinking systems use significantly less chemicals than are required to make virgin paper. Virtually all contamination in deinking waste comes from the inks, dyes, and other residues originally present on the paper which is being recycled. According to several paper companies, deinking waste has undergone the EPA's TCLP analysis (for toxicity) which shows it not to be hazardous. (Trust of the EPA regulations is a matter to consider.) One mill disposes of this waste in a municipal landfill. Another was experimenting with making clay items like flower pots and clay pigeons from the waste.

The Broader Problem

One of the greatest environmental problems we face is Greenwash and Ecoscam. Green Marketing is a new segment of industry that markets something as good for the environment whether the product is environmentally benign or not. This kind of rip-off falsely assuages the consumer's conscience. Much so-called recycled paper falls into this category. Disappointingly, this taints the good products that are out there. It creates a demand where there is no need - over-consumption.

Wasteful consumption is the problem, whether it is green or not. Depending on your source, for everyone in the world to live in the manner we do in the U.S., it would take 3 to 5 planets like Earth just to provide the raw materials. In other words, to try and live at a sustainable level on Earth (at 1990-1992 population levels), Exploitation of others and their environments throughout the world for the Western ways of consumption and waste is a ripe issue for human rights advocates. Americans must reduce our average consumption by 65% to 80%. Ecoscammers need to put that in their pipe and smoke it. We as consumers need to be wary. We as conservationists have our work cut out.

Since paper is the issue here, let me give you an example. The rate of increased use of all paper in this country is growing at a greater rate than the rate of recovery of post-consumer waste paper for recycling. We may again see glut of paper collected for recycling, reflecting a lack of demand for post-consumer recycled paper. About 1.5% of the fiber used in printing and writing paper comes from post-consumer material. From 1970-1991, consumption of paper in the U.S. more than doubled.

Getting at the Solutions

We need to preface the discussion of solutions by addressing ways we as individuals, businesses, and organizations can reduce our overall use and waste of paper. Also, this is not the only important issue - we need to address the problematic use of chemicals, especially chlorine, used in making paper.

Domestically grown hemp and kenaf as fiber sources will be good substitutes for trees as fiber for paper. But they are not good choices as substitutes for post-consumer recycled paper or ag waste. . Hemp and kenaf papers don't have all the environmental assets of post-consumer waste paper. When recycling is stable, or a substitute virgin fiber source will actually be used, these plants are the answer.

Another great source of fiber for paper is staring us in the face - agricultural byproducts. There are at least two high quality papers on the market that contain agricultural byproducts and post-consumer wastes.

An excellent solution would be to mix agricultural byproducts and kenaf fiber with post-consumer recycled paper fiber to gain both waste stream reduction and fiber strength. This would address many of the environmental questions and bring down the cost of new fiber sources in paper. Many of the less recycled but more commonly used papers are made with up to half virgin fiber. With alternative fibers as the virgin source material, this should give you a truly high quality paper, and answer many of the application questions raised about recycled paper, such as short fiber length and durability over time.

I look forward to the day we have widespread use of paper made from 50% post-consumer waste paper and 50% agricultural byproducts, hemp, or kenaf!


This paper ©1995, Rick Meis, Woodelf Inc. Contact Woodelf, Inc. for for permission to reprint all or part of this article.(v.O6)

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