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KENAF
A NON-WOOD PAPER ALTERNATIVE

The virgin-wood paper industry destroys forest ecosystems, fragments wildlife habitats, and contaminates our air and waterways. Recognizing the urgency of the problem, ReThink Paper promotes clean, sustainable, high-quality non-wood paper alternatives such as kenaf.

DURING THE 1940s AND EARLY '50s, paper usage in the United States nearly doubled, reaching 40 million tons a year by 1956 (Americans now use 90 million tons annually). During that time, regional wood-pulp shortages became common across the country. Forests were being logged wholesale to feed paper mills' voracious appetites for pulp, and the pressure on them steadily increased.

In response, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture undertook an exhaustive search for an alternative, non-wood fiber crop capable of satisfying the paper industry's needs. In 1960, after having investigated nearly 200 promising plant species, the agency announced its finding: The best fiber source for papermaking was Hibiscus cannabinus, a cousin to cotton and okra, commonly known by its Persian name, "kenaf".

Now welcomed as an income producer by a growing number of farmers, primarily in the Southeast where the crop flourishes, at that time kenaf was still relatively new to this continent, and its acceptance by the locals was slow in coming. Kenaf's historical roots extend deep into Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia (places where its common name varies widely). For thousands of years, its fiber has provided people in those regions with fiber for clothing, rope, sacking, and rugs, while its tender seedlings have been served as a nutritious vegetable. Luckily for those needing to conserve forests, kenaf fiber also makes great paper, which may be the plant's principal value as a successful, non-invasive transplant to the United States.

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Written by: Mark Mardon


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