The majority of the people that made money during the US gold rush sold shovels, blankets and booze. Gold was the sexy pursuit, but those who serviced the dream reliably did well, while the rivers ran mud for a decade. This is the perfect segue into talking about non-wood pulps, not because they are like gold, but because they promise to be the shovels and blankets in today’s rush on paper packaging and rayon fabric. Currently made from wood cellulose, those involved in the supply of paper, packaging and viscose fabrics are doing brisk business. But the sourcing of wood pulp poses a huge threat to the world’s ancient and endangered forests and climate. Paper packaging and fabrics made from agricultural fibers – particularly residues - and recycled clothing are fast emerging alternatives to pulp made with wood. These are promising solutions for our climate and biodiversity. Sound alluring? Get your shovels ready.
Global retail E-commerce is slated to rise from its current USD 2.7 trillion in annual business to 4.5 trillion by 2021. The fashion sector is leading the runway on this, but the retail landscape in general is shifting dramatically to online shopping. Eighty percent of all packaging for E-commerce is made from corrugated paper – mainly cardboard boxes – made with wood fiber (sometimes mixed with recycled pulp). Paper packaging is projected to rise by four percent per annum globally. The important movement to shift away from single use plastics has also had the effect of increasing demand for paperboard and corrugated boxes and even paper straws. Coupled with the growth in the fashion sector’s use of wood cellulose-derived rayon and viscose, you can virtually hear the chainsaws roaring in forests around the world.
Don’t you just wish that we could design packaging better so that it was reusable? Or that packages were designed using less material? What if we could wave a wand and suddenly figure out how to make paper from straw and other agricultural residues left after the food harvest? While we’re on the topic, can’t we start recycling the mountains of clothing being thrown into the landfills every year to turn that fiber into new thread for clothing instead of chopping down the world’s best carbon sequestration machines – forests? More than a third of the world’s climate solution lies in protecting carbon rich forest landscapes. Get your shovels ready, because this is already possible, and in some places, already happening.
Until 150 years ago all paper was made from agricultural fiber. It started with the ancients using papyrus for scrolls, but the industrial machines of the early 1800’s up until the 1950’s in some parts of the US, used wheat straw, cotton and linen (flax straw) rags to make paper. In China the use of hemp stalks, rice straw, wheat straw and bamboo has been a consistent source of paper fiber. India is the same. Wood took over as the primary source because so much fiber is packed so densely into a tree, and forests once seemed endless. The tremendous amount of energy and chemicals it took to convert a hard tree into a pulp were not considered to be of consequence – and for over a hundred years ancient forests were logged from the mountain tops to the stream banks, rivers were made toxic, and mill chimneys churned out sulphurous air pollution.
As we teeter on this precarious ecological edge, solutions that have been sitting in front of us for centuries start to come into focus. Brilliant people have been working at modernizing the old manufacturing process of pulping agricultural fibers for paper. They have been finding interest within the business sector and solutions are beginning to break out the lab and into the marketplace. As of this writing, Columbia Pulp, the first modern day commercial scale wheat straw pulp mill, is under construction in Washington State, in the US. There are half a dozen other ventures which have developed methods of making paper from agricultural fiber that are in financing stage, and an equal number that have developed tech for making viscose/rayon pulp from old clothes and microbial cellulose grown from food waste.
The world is bursting with good ideas. But if there was a dollar for every good idea we’d all be rich. Solution ideas become actual solutions when investors invest and supply chains accommodate because major customers make it clear that they want the new product (or even better make off-take agreements).
For nearly 20 years Canopy, my environmental not-for-profit organization, has been building market demand for paper alternatives made with agricultural fibers. Hundreds of the forest industries’ largest corporate-customers are ready, right now, to use paper made from the residues left after the harvest (e.g. wheat, flax, hemp or rye straw, pineapple tops, banana stems and the list goes on). We are working with these companies to coalesce their demand through the supply chain to leverage non-wood paper products into existence. Our work with over 160 fashion brands has also spurred a rush to find the new technologies that can recycle old clothes into new thread.
Like any resource there is the risk that too much residue could be removed from the fields. That’s why new eco certification standards are being developed for industrial uses of agricultural biomass. We shouldn’t shift from one problem like unsustainable logging only to cause another. If done in concert with better packaging design to use less paper and with recycled materials, there is tremendous opportunity for agricultural fiber to service the demand for eco-paper and fashion products. The market is there. The technology is there. Now it’s time for the investment sector and the entrepreneurs to build the next generation of production. Shovels ready.
Nicole Rycroft is founder and executive director, Canopy