What's the Future for Alternative Fibers?

What's the Future for Alternative Fibers?

This article originally appeared on GreenBlue's In the Loop blog, and is reprinted with permission.

Paper -- at least in a historical context -- really didn't have much to do with trees and forests until as recently as 1843. We're quick to connect paper and forests, but for the 2,000-odd years proceeding 1843, paper was derived almost exclusively from recycled textiles such as hemp, linen, and cotton.

What might be even more surprising is that in the time since papermaking from wood fiber was introduced back in 1843, only a small percentage of paper today is derived from fibers other than wood. And, 85 percent of that amount consists mostly of non-wood papers made in China. Is it because it took that long to figure out that wood is the best and most preferable source of fiber for papermaking? Probably not.

Take kenaf, for example. Kenaf is a fast-growing annual, related to cotton and okra, that many studies suggest absorbs more CO2 than trees, outcompetes most weeds, and is resistant to many pests and diseases so that it can be farmed with minimal chemical inputs. It also produces two types of fiber suitable for papermaking.

These studies also show that it is easier to pulp than wood-based fibers and therefore can be processed with less energy and water, as well as less environmentally problematical chemicals. Farmers can even rotate kenaf into production with other row crops like corn or soy.

Kenaf is also one example of what is referred to as an "alternative fiber" for papermaking. "Alternative," at least to me, is an interesting choice of words given that wood fiber would have been considered an alternative for much of paper's history. Regardless, in the present day alternative fibers are referred to as any non-wood fiber that can be used as material for paper and packaging.

These fiber materials are also called "tree-free" and consist of fiber sources grown a: 1) a primary crop (like kenaf and hemp); and, 2) agricultural residues (like wheat straw).

Proponents of alternative fibers suggest that the use of non-wood fiber for papermaking has less environmental impacts due to the cultivation, yield, and efficiency of non-wood fibers. These proponents argue that using non-wood fiber will have less impact on the forest, save trees, and divert agricultural residues from being burned. It also could help areas that can't grow trees create an industry for making paper fiber.

Opponents to the use of alternative fibers suggest that there is no existing infrastructure that can support alternative fibers on a commercial scale. Worldwide, alternative fibers consist of less than 10 percent of fiber in paper and packaging, and 85 percent of that amount consists mostly of non-wood papers made in China. (In the U.S. alternative fibers are less than 1 percent of fiber in paper and packaging.) Other challenges cited include the potential harmful effects of converting forest land to other uses, as well as converting farmland to non-food uses.

There is a significant amount of research and information available regarding the use of non-wood fibers for paper and packaging. However, more information is still needed. The best thinking to address the questions of non-wood and wood fiber for papermaking requires a holistic and scientific approach.

It is not enough to just say "if it's not made from a tree, it's a better choice." Life Cycle Analyses (LCAs) have their own limitations, but a rigorous and science-based LCA is one way that we could find out more about how alternative fibers compare to wood fiber for paper and packaging in terms of the economic, technical, and environmental benefits of each fiber type.

It is hardly realistic to think that one can replace another or vice-versa, but there is likely an approach that could suggest a more efficient use of all available fibers for papermaking than exists today.

Some important key questions to consider in this analysis include:

1. Would the use of alternative fibers remove incentives to keep the landscape forested?

2. Do the environmental advantages of alternative fibers persist when the production expands to the necessary scale, or does it result in more negative environmental impacts? (considering water use, chemical inputs, energy requirements, climate effects, etc.)

3. What is the risk that forest land will be converted to agriculture?

4. What effects, both positive and negative, would this have on local communities and indigenous peoples?

Paper photo via Shutterstock.