AN ECOLOGICAL ALTERNATIVE
The kenaf plant is considered one of the most promising alternatives to virgin soft and hard woods for paper production. An herbaceous annual related to cotton and okra, kenaf is a member of the mallow family indigenous to West Africa. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) began researching kenaf in the 1940s, when World War II put a stop to jute imports from Asia. In 1960, the USDA chose kenaf from among five hundred candidates as the most promising non-wood fiber for pulp and paper production. After much research and numerous trials runs, kenaf paper is now available from several commercial retailers and is being used by major corporations, printing and graphics firms and publishers.
Companies like Apple, Sony, Warner Bros., REI, J.C. Penny, The Nature Co., The Gap, Esprit International and Birkenstock have begun to use kenaf paper for catalogues and other purposes. Major Printing and Graphics firms such as Kinkos, Anderson Lithographics, George Rice and Sons, Ventura Printing and Lithographix now provide printing services on kenaf paper.
Earth Island Institute's Earth Island Journal was the first magazine to be printed entirely on 100% 'tree-free' kenaf paper. Two and a half years later, the journal continues to be printed on kenaf. On Earth Day, 1995, conservationist David Brower's latest book, Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run (HarperCollins) became the first hardcover book to be published on 100% kenaf paper. Several other books have been published on kenaf, including Proceedings from the First Biomass Conference of the America's: Energy, Environment, Agriculture and Industry, and Peter Kreitler's The Earth's Killer C's.
The USDA identified kenaf as the best non-wood paper alternative for several reasons:
1. Rapid growth: Kenaf reaches 12-18 feet in 150 days, while southern pine (A species commonly grown on tree plantations) must grow 14 to 17 years before it can be harvested.
2. High yield: Kenaf also yields more fiber per acre than southern pine producing 5-10 tons of dry fiber per acre, or approximately 3 to 5 times as much as southern pine.
3. Exceptional papermaking characteristics: Less chemicals, heat and time are required to pulp kenaf fibers because they are not as tough as woodpulp and contain less lignin (an average kenaf plant contains only 9% lignin, while southern pine contains 29% lignin). Lignin is a resin that binds the cellulose fibers in plants or trees together. Toxic chemicals such as chlorine are predominantly used to delignify and bleach wood pulp. Kenaf can be quickly and easily pulped and bleached with harmless chemicals, such as hydrogen peroxide.
Despite its commercial and environmental advantages, the kenaf paper industry is as yet undeveloped. As of August 1995, New Mexico's Vision Paper was the only company commercially producing kenaf paper in the US. Vision Paper manufactured 200 tons of kenaf paper in 1994. Due to significant industry start up costs, smaller economies of scale and government subsidies to the pulp, paper and timber industries, kenaf paper is more expensive than virgin wood-based papers. Virgin wood-based papers may be cheap, but these prices do not reflect environmental costs which have been externalized by the pulp, paper, and timber industries. The destruction of ancient forest ecosystems, fragmentation of wildlife habitat and the pollution of water systems are the most obvious. If the enormous costs of restoration are taken into account, development of the kenaf paper industry, which would leave forests intact while simultaneously reducing industrial pollution and energy consumption, begins to make both economic and ecological "cents/sense."
However, depending on how the kenaf industry develops several environmental problems could arise:
Large scale monoculture farming is often chemically intensive. Currently only one pesticide and two herbicides are registered for use on kenaf. However, as the industry expands, there is concern that chemical usage could increase. However, pest-tolerant kenaf varieties and rotation with other pest-resistant crops (e.g. corn) effectively and organically combat kenaf pests such as nematodes. FFPC is currently investigating other non-polluting solutions to kenaf pest and disease problems.
Kenaf, like many virgin wood fibers, is presently pulped by the kraft process. Pulping is a polluting process. However, kenaf pulping requires less chemical inputs and consumes less energy than most virgin wood pulping processes and is thus less polluting.
There is concern that a growing kenaf industry, striving to compete with wood-based paper prices, may begin to bleach their paper with chlorine. In the United States, kenaf is bleached with hydrogen peroxide. During the bleaching process hydrogen peroxide breaks down into H2O (water). Chlorine, which is commonly used to brighten wood pulp, is substantially less expensive than hydrogen peroxide. However mounting evidence points to frightening ecological and human health risks associated with the chlorine bleaching of wood pulp.Despite these concerns, kenaf paper production saves critical forest habitat and is considerably less polluting and environmentally destructive than virgin wood-based paper production. Written by: Forest Friendly Paper Campaign
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