A NON-WOOD PAPER ALTERNATIVE
Through repeated trials and commercial ventures in the U.S., kenaf has proven to be as good as or better than trees for papermaking. When processed whole, kenaf stalks make excellent pulp for newsprint. When stripped from the stalk's core, kenaf's long, woody bark fibers-called "bast"-compare favorably with virgin fiber from pine trees (the most common pulp source in the U.S.) and other softwoods. The bast provides an ideal furnish for making strong, high-quality printing and writing papers. The plant's shorter core material, by contrast, performs much like hardwood fiber. It produces lower grades of paper with less tear strength, though it can still effectively comprise more than a third of top-grade kenaf paper.
Today more and more farmers and paper manufacturers are looking to kenaf as a way of diversifying their fiber base. For farmers wanting to get into alternative markets promising a good return, the plant is a boon. It grows rapidly, reaching 12-18 feet in just five months. Southern pines in tree plantations, by contrast, take 20-25 years to reach harvest stage, making them a risky investment for small farmers who can ill afford to tie up land for such a long period. Moreover kenaf plants, unlike trees, fit well into rotational crop systems. Tree plantations are monocultures. They replace forests that have been clearcut, while playing none of a true forest's ecological roles in preserving habitat and protecting wildlife.
Kenaf's value per acre of land, moreover, is greater than pine's since its fiber yield (6-10 tons of dry fiber per acre annually) ranges from two to five times higher than pine's. Most significantly, its pulp yield ranges-conservatively-from 22-60 percent higher than pine's, depending on the pulping process used. Kenaf bast alone yields about as much pulp per acre as pine- which still leaves a heap of core fiber to be marketed for such products (in addition to paper pulp) as particle board, potting soil, poultry litter, horse bedding, and oil and chemical adsorbents for bioremediation.
Kenaf reaps a wide range of other rewards for farmers, their families, and their communities. It's a hardy crop, resistant to most pests and diseases, and able to stand up under widely varying degrees of weather. It crowds out weeds, which limits the need for herbicide applications. Its leaves are plowed back into the earth to recycle nitrogen and other nutrients, reducing the need for heavy chemical fertilization. It's ideal for rotation with legumes, corn, sorghum, and other food crops, a practice that maintains soil quality, maximizes harvest yields, and prevents the spread of root-knot nematodes, one of the principal threats to kenaf's health.
Especially in uncertain economic times, when cash-strapped farmers often must let parcels of land lie fallow because of food surpluses dumped on the world market, kenaf's inclusion in a crop-rotation scheme can diversify income sources, increasing financial security.
By no means are farms the only sector of society able to profit from kenaf's qualities. Small-scale ("mini") pulp-and-paper mills can be situated near kenaf farms to readily take advantage of the fiber. Outfitted with state-of-the-art technology, such mills can be relatively cheap to construct and easy to finance. They can improve regional economies by distributing jobs to more small-to-medium-sized mills rather than centralizing them at huge mills, while cutting the environmental and economic costs of transporting fiber.
To ecologically minded, cost-conscious papermakers, kenaf looks particularly attractive. It can create an exceptional product while substantially reducing pollution, conserving energy, and cutting production expenses. The fiber can be pulped with existing technology. It is low in lignin content compared to wood. Only eight percent of kenaf bark (and 13 percent of the whole stalk) is made up of the cellulose-bonding substance, compared with 30 percent for pine, which makes it considerably less energy intensive. When mechanically rather than chemically processed, kenaf takes about 37 percent less energy to pulp than wood-a fact that, again, translates to considerable cost and environmental savings.
But the advantages don't stop there. Kenaf can be more easily bleached than wood using non-chlorine agents such as ozone, hydrogen peroxide, and oxygen. These benign processes eliminate chlorinated compounds and other pollutants from the paper-mill waste-stream. In turn, they keep dioxin-one of the most toxic and persistent substances on Earth-from further contaminating the biosphere (dioxin from industrial sources has already spread to all of Earth's regions, including the polar regions).
With so many factors working in its favor, it seems that, by now, the kenaf-paper industry ought to be well developed. Surprisingly, it remains in its infancy. As of late 1996, the only company manufacturing kenaf paper commercially in the U.S. is Vision Paper, a division of New Mexico's K.P. Products. Though the mill it employs can turn out up to 100 tons of kenaf paper a month, the demand for the commodity has remained modest. Only when paper purchasers begin demanding tree-free products in sizeable quantities, and kenaf becomes a significant source of fiber for several mills, will the industry at last be able to take off.
What stands in the way is resistance to change, especially on the part of the entrenched pulp-and-paper industry that fattens its profits at the expense of forests. Its owners have long turned a blind eye to the consequences of their wood addiction, while banking on their customers continuing to do so as well.
What the mainstream paper industry prefers not to acknowledge is that the relatively low prices it charges for virgin-wood paper fails to reflect the product's hefty environmental toll-the destruction of intact-forest ecosystems, fragmentation of wildlife habitats, depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, and contamination of air and waterways, among other impacts. If these costs were tallied up and added to customers' bills, the outmoded paper market would change dramatically. Kenaf paper-which leaves forests intact while minimizing energy consumption and pollution-would quickly be seen to make both economic and ecological sense.
As with all enterprises, however, the emerging kenaf-paper industry faces environmental challenges. Because kenaf requires about as much irrigation water as cotton, its cultivation in drier regions of the U.S., including southern California and the Southwest, could impact wildlife and vegetation. Care will be needed to ensure that kenaf fields are sited in areas with ample rainfall, such as the Southeast, and that they leave a plentiful supply of water for native species and habitats.
An expanding kenaf industry, struggling to price its product competitively with subsidized wood-based papers, might feel compelled to use chlorine for bleaching, since it's substantially less expensive than hydrogen peroxide. Such economic pressure must be countered by public education emphasizing chlorine's toxic toll on the biosphere.
Kenaf and other "Earth friendly" paper alternatives offer viable, job-creating solutions to environmental problems caused by timber harvesting for virgin-wood paper. Nonwood paper is clearly the necessary alternative. Currently, however, such alternatives are more expensive than virgin-wood paper due to significant start-up costs for mills, smaller economies of scale in the marketplace, and the disadvantage in competing with the dominant paper industrey which enjoys considerable government subsidies. Rethinking paper means rethinking these subsidies, either scaling them back or eliminating them altogether. ReThink Paper supports policies that favor a truly sustainable paper industry.
Already some green-thinking corporations (among them Apple, Aveda, Esprit, and Fetzer Vineyards) are helping to preserve forests and reduce pollution by producing printed materials on kenaf. A few far-sighted publishers have successfully employed kenaf, most notably Gar Smith, editor of Earth Island Journal , who pioneered the use of kenaf in magazine publishing, and HarperCollins, which printed David Brower's Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run entirely on kenaf. These advances stemmed from the leadership of visionary executives intent on demonstrating that environmental protection and business imperatives go hand in hand.
Such ground-breaking efforts are but the beginning of a push to spare forests and clean up pollution by shifting from an outdated, destructive mode of production to one that's appropriate for a cleaner 21st century. The emergence of a viable kenaf industry will not occur overnight, nor without considerable trial and error and sacrifice on the part of many individuals. Public awareness and support of the paper is essential. Certainly no idea as good as kenaf paper should be allowed to die, nor will it, so long as environmentalists work for it, for Earth's sake.
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