The Paper Chase

The Paper Chase

The paperless office is still a distant dream. Meanwhile, a growing movement is pushing for more recycled content, and tree-free alternatives make the case to end logging forever. By Jim Motavalli



According to The Myth of the Paperless Office, a company’s use of e-mail causes an average 40% increase in paper consumption. The demand for ream after ream of white paper is putting a huge strain not only on America’s forests, but the world’s. And it’s forcing the environmental movement to consider the alternatives.

The U.S. currently gobbles up some 200 million tons of wood products annually, with consumption increasing by 4% every year. The pulp and paper industry is the biggest culprit. U.S. paper producers alone consume one billion trees -- or 12,430 square miles of forests -- every year, while producing 735 pounds of paper for every American.

The U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population, but consumes 30% of the world’s paper. Only 5% of America’s virgin forests remain, while 70% of the fiber consumed by the pulp and paper industry continues to be generated from virgin wood. While logging controversies most often center around the Pacific Northwest, most of the wood pulp used for paper in the U.S. actually comes from southern forests, currently home to some of the greatest biodiversity in the continental U.S.

Worldwide, global consumption of wood products has risen 64% since 1961. The industry expects that demand will double by 2050, keeping pace with population growth. Recycling has helped, but has not yet made an appreciable difference. “Recycling has yet to dent the world’s appetite for virgin-fiber pulp,” says the Worldwatch Institute.

In Indonesia, the pulp and paper industry is destroying rainforest so quickly that it will run out of wood by 2007, according to a report by Friends of the Earth. An area the size of Belgium is wiped out annually. Only 10% of the trees cut down for paper in Indonesia are farmed, although the industry had supposedly committed to replanting its clear-cuts with fast-growing acacia trees.

Globally, pulp for paper and other uses is taking an increasing share of all wood production, from 40% in 1998 to nearly 60% over the next 50 years. In the same time span, easily accessible and inexpensive sources of wood are disappearing. Because of the rapid consumption of virgin forests in places as far apart as Canada and Southeast Asia, forest restoration has not been able to keep pace with the demand for wood products.

Toxic Pollution and Waste

Loss of forests isn’t the only issue. Deforestation has released an estimated 120 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the major global warming gas, into the atmosphere. The pulp and paper industry is the third-largest industrial polluter in both Canada and the U.S., releasing more than 220 million pounds of toxic pollution into the air, ground and water each year.

Much of that pollution is the byproduct of the three million tons of chlorine used annually to bleach wood pulp white. Chlorine bleaching is a major source of the potent carcinogen dioxin, which is routinely discharged into rivers and streams with wastewater. As a result, dioxin is now ubiquitous in our environment, found throughout the world in air, water, soil and food. Every woman alive today carries some trace of dioxin in her breast milk. Dioxin is considered one of the most toxic substances ever produced, and has been known to cause cancer, liver failure, miscarriage, birth defects and genetic damage in laboratory animals.

The U.S. paper industry has been aware of the dioxin problem since at least 1985, but has been very slow to act on alternatives (see sidebar). In Europe, chlorine bleaching is being phased out. That has only been proposed in the U.S., despite the fact that the American Public Health Association strongly supports a phase-out. In Sweden, pulp mills have to meet stringent standards, and were required to reduce chlorine content by 90% as early as 1993. When they have to, American companies such as Proctor and Gamble can go virtually chlorine-free: The Pampers exported to Sweden, for example, are made without a chlorine-bleaching process, unlike those wrapping U.S. babies.

Paper is also the dominant material in solid waste. And in the United States, paper-producing companies are the third-largest energy consumer, with a pace that keeps quickening.

It’s not surprising that, given all these environmental negatives, the paper industry would wrap itself in a green mantle. International Paper, for instance, issued a Sustainability Report in 2002 that cites its role as “among the largest owners of sustainably managed private forestland in the world.” Its raw material is trees, the report says, “the world’s greatest renewable resource.” It participates in forest certification programs and voluntary partnerships and strictly adheres to environmental regulations. And according to the American Forest and Paper Association, U.S. papermakers recycle enough paper every day to fill a 15-mile-long train of boxcars. Since 1990, the recovered paper would fill 200 football stadiums to a height of 100 feet.

While some of this is undoubtedly greenwashing, Michael Klein, a spokesperson for the American Forest and Paper Association, asserts that the industry is currently using all the recycled paper it can get. “I have a problem with activists who say we have to demand more recycled content,” Klein says. “Instead, they should demand that people recycle more. One hundred percent of the paper and boxed fiberboard people put on the curb is used.” Paper activists point out, however, that a significant amount of U.S.-generated recyclable paper is actually exported. Nearly a quarter of the recovered paper in the U.S. is shipped to Mexico, Canada, Asia and Europe rather than being recycled here, reports Conservatree.

Tree-Free Paper: Great Expectations

There is vast potential for a “green” paper industry, including recycled and natural fibers, that could not only spare trees but also produce paper with minimal environmental impact overall, but it needs an infusion of both public interest and research funding. It is presently, at best, a $20 million sales niche in a $230 billion U.S. industry, asserts the San Francisco-based Fiber Futures, which lobbies for expanded use of agricultural residues and other tree-free materials for paper. A plan by the Natural Resources Defense Council to open a paper recycling plant in the Bronx, New York ended tragically because of labor opposition and last-minute political maneuvering, which thwarted financing. Many small and medium-sized paper mills that handled tree-free papers have closed because of industry consolidation and the economic downturn, sending many paper manufacturers overseas for sources of pulp.

But despite these market setbacks, research continues to offer strong evidence that non-wood fibers can be used for large-scale paper production in North America. And tiny demonstration projects have been very successful, while full-scale mills are moving forward overseas. According to Fiber Futures, a dedicated wheat straw pulp mill is being built in Turkmenistan.

Progress is arriving incrementally. In Canada, the so-called Markets Initiative, with support from several major nonprofit groups and linked to the U.S.-based Green Press Initiative, has persuaded 67 Canadian book publishers to buy their paper from forest-friendly sources. The Harry Potter books printed in Canada are among the converts.

Meanwhile, paper activists are mobilizing. In late 2002, 75 members of more than 50 environmental groups from around the world gathered together to promote what they called “an environmentally and socially sustainable paper production system.” The Environmental Paper Summit promotes collaborations on the use of environmentally friendly papers, and is planning outreach to progressive paper purchasers (including social justice groups and labor unions), producers and suppliers -- all in an effort to change paper consumption habits.

The Environmental Paper Summit’s steering committee included Conservatree, the Center for a New American Dream, Co-op America, Dogwood Alliance, Environmental Defense, Forest Ethics, the Green Press Initiative, Markets Initiative, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Recycled Products Purchasing Cooperative. The process resulted in a Common Vision document that has already been signed by more than 80 nonprofit groups and corporations.

“We’re trying to stimulate demand for recycled paper,” says Susan Kinsella, executive director of Conservatree. “Environmental groups needed to express a common mission so that it would be clear the market will be there. We realized we’re all in it together, and the process created tremendous camaraderie.” A new push is desperately needed, because consumers have become complacent, and big potential purchasers have become worried about steady sources of recycled paper. Recycled fiber content slid from a high of 10% in the early 1990s to a current rate of less than 5%.

The Common Vision endorses kenaf and hemp production “if life-cycle analysis and other comprehensive and credible analyses indicate that they are environmentally and socially preferable to other sources of virgin fiber.” Kinsella says recycled paper “needs to be the bottom line,” but she also sees a need to increase non-wood production.

This view is common in the environmental community. Evan Paul, a Forest Ethics paper campaigner, says, “While it’s better to be growing kenaf instead of logging, we want to really look at the whole life cycle of natural fibers. We’re not sure of the full impact when it includes clearing land and using pesticides.” Paul is, however, bullish on the use of existing agricultural waste in papermaking, including corn and rice husks. “But,” he adds, “There hasn’t been a lot of development in that field, either.”

One such tree-free waste paper is made from 100% bagasse fiber, left over from sugar cane production. According to Reprograph’s Erik Sanudo, the new Propal paper line was launched in 2003 and hopes to find uses in stores and offices for notepads and cash register rolls. Kimberly-Clark also uses bagasse in paper towels and tissues.

The Common Vision also calls for “responsible fiber sourcing” that cuts down on virgin wood fiber use, ends the use of wood products from endangered forests, and asks for a moratorium on turning natural ecosystems into monocrop wood plantations (see sidebar).

All of this activity strikes many in the paper industry as beside the point. “We think finding a replacement for wood fiber is a problem that does not need to be solved,” John Mechem of the Washington-based American Forest and Paper Association told Well Journal. “Our group is not necessarily opposed to kenaf. In fact, some of our members have tried -- and may still be trying -- to make it work.”

Reviving a Movement

The new movement could spur a process that has slowed after some promising developments. In 1996, widespread protests against logging operations -- and memories of the severe 1994 price hike for pulp -- prompted some publishers to investigate alternatives to tree-based paper. With the cooperation of seven newspapers, Al Wong of Arbokem developed a test newsprint that was 68% de-inked old newspapers, 12% thermo-mechanical wood pulp (which is crushed with grinders using steam at high pressures and temperatures), 11% ryegrass straw pulp, 6% rice straw pulp and 3% red fescue straw pulp. Some 200 tons of this mixed-origin newsprint were produced and test-printed at the such newspapers as the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury-News and the Sacramento Bee.

The experiment was successful. Sue Dorchak, quality-assurance manager at the Mercury-News, says her company had evaluated the agri-fiber’s strength, appearance, runability and ability to take ink, and found only a tiny difference. She said the newspaper was both “enthused and optimistic,” but the experiment was not repeated (despite projections that the agri-pulp for newsprint would actually be cheaper than wood pulp product at a certain scale).

Both hemp and kenaf offer excellent possibilities for use as a virgin fiber replacement in newsprint, which tends to carry a high recycled content. Kenaf was first used in a print run by the Peoria Journal Star in 1977, after the federal Agricultural Research Service (ARS), based in Peoria, laid the groundwork through technological feasibility studies. ARS proclaimed kenaf to be its top alternative fiber candidate for pulp and papermaking. The American Newspaper Publishers Association became interested in kenaf and produced a feasibility study in 1981. A joint venture company, Kenaf International, was also formed at that time.

Unfortunately, once the efficacy of kenaf for newsprint was demonstrated in Illinois, ARS effectively moved on to other projects. Picking up the ball was the Kenaf Demonstration Project, which created some well-traveled kenaf for test purposes: It was grown in Texas (through the support of then-Congressman Kika de la Garza), pulped in Ohio, made into newsprint in Quebec and shipped to California, Texas and Florida for printing. Hard work by a number of dedicated advocates kept the dream of kenaf paper alive until the groundbreaking 1996 newspaper experiment.

It’s uncertain if the newspaper experiments will continue. Partly because newsprint (which does not face critical strength and brightness issues) already contains more than 50% recycled content, Arbokem and other companies now focus on other paper markets, particularly those (including writing paper and bright white boxboard) that currently uses high amounts of virgin fiber.

The advantages of alternative fiber paper are many. “Under favorable conditions, kenaf can be several times more productive than trees on a per-acre basis,” says fibers expert E.L. Whitely. “Kenaf dry material could be produced at about half the cost per unit of producing pulpwood.” Kenaf paper can also be produced without chlorine bleaching, advocates say. A Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry (TAPPI) study called “A Search for New Fiber Crops” demonstrated that alternative fibers require less energy and chemical use in processing than standard wood sources. According to the “Using Less Wood” fact sheet, energy use can be cut by 30% in the mechanical pulp and refining process with alternative fibers.

The environmental website Ecomall reports that one acre of hemp can produce as much usable fiber as four acres of trees. It adds that hemp paper is longer lasting than wood pulp, stronger, and both acid- and chlorine-free. Hemp advocates point out that hemp-based paper can be recycled seven times, versus only four for wood pulp.

There is the potential for large-scale commercialization of tree-free paper, but there remain a number of obstacles, many of them agricultural. As Daniel Kugler’s report “Non-Wood Fiber Crops” demonstrates, a major barrier is the lack of processing plants and commercial-scale agricultural equipment. Many of the test plots have been harvested using equipment borrowed from other industries, including sugar cane and cotton. But kenaf harvesters have been built and tested. These problems would be easily overcome if the industry were focused on them.

Converting the paper pulping industry to tree-free raw material would be a Herculean effort. Worldwide, just 10% of all paper pulp comes from non-wood sources; in the U.S. the figure is less than a paltry 1%. In part because the paper industry has an enormous investment in wood as a raw material, there is little momentum today.

Jeanne Trombly, founder of Fiber Futures, says that, despite the huge amount of agricultural waste produced here, there are currently no commercial non-wood pulp mills in the United States. With the exception of one small plant that pulps U.S. currencies for remanufacture as paper, all non-wood pulp is imported. Industrial hemp is illegal to grow in the U.S. (but legal in Canada). It is in such heavy demand from small manufacturers that a thriving industry exists to, for example, grow it in Hungary and process it in Italy.

“The paper industry in the United States is at a crossroads,” Trombly says. “The traditional companies are floundering and contracting, but there’s still not much enthusiasm for applying research and development money to innovative non-woods. It’s a stubborn allegiance to the wood-based models that have brought the industry to where it is today.” Trombly points out that the strong fiber produced by hemp and kenaf blends well with the weaker post-consumer recycled paper.

At a recent University of Washington conference on the future of the paper industry, two of four student presentations focused on pulping wheat straw. “It was wonderful to see,” Trombly says, “but the paper and pulp executives in attendance were very discouraging, claiming that the technology is too expensive, or that while it may work technically, it ‘just doesn’t work for us.’”

Al Wong, a Vancouver, Canada-based pioneer who markets his own uncoated “Downtown Paper #3” for the California market, has learned the hard way that the paper business is not immediately receptive to new ideas. But Wong’s story is one of inspiring perseverance. In 1993, Wong’s company, Arbokem, designed and built a demonstration-size pulp mill in Alberta, Canada that used wheat straw, an agricultural waste that would otherwise be burned, as its basic “feedstock.” With the addition of longer-fiber pulp from other sources, wheat straw is an effective base for newsprint.

The mill’s first pulp was produced in 1994, but the operation encountered both technical problems and sales resistance on the part of potential buyers. The mill tried out a variety of agricultural residues, including California rice straw, Oregon ryegrass, Washington State bluegrass, and flax straw from Manitoba. In 1999, the mill made a permanent change to exclusive use of organically grown cereal straw.

Agricultural waste remains an enormously promising resource for papermaking. Meanwhile, both hemp and kenaf offer a sound alternative to virgin fiber, leaving the world’s fast-disappearing forests intact.

Cultivating Kenaf

Kenaf, a long-fiber plant that originated in the East Indies and is grown in the U.S., Thailand and China, is a relative of okra and cotton that is now making inroads as a wood substitute. The earliest-known kenaf production was in 4000 B.C., and the plant has traditionally been used in the making of rope, sacking, twine and matting. Research on the plant began in the U.S. during World War II, when supplies of jute were interrupted. Kenaf was part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Search for New Pulp Fibers program in the 1950s. According to the group Conservatree, kenaf was determined by the USDA to be “the best option for tree-free papermaking in the U.S.”

The kenaf plant flowers at the end of the growing season, leaving a seed pod behind. The pod needs up to 90 days of frost-free weather to germinate, so it rarely survives, a factor that reduces kenaf’s ability to spread and become an invasive weed. After harvest, the whole kenaf plant is processed in a fiber separator similar to a cotton gin. Kenaf can yield six to 10 tons of dry fiber per acre in four or five months of growing time, and its advocates point out that this is approximately double the hemp yield.

The USDA revived its interest in the fiber with the aforementioned Kenaf Demonstration Project in 1986, and important advances were made in adapting the plant for modern commercial uses (including increasing its fungi tolerance). The Mississippi Kenaf Project was inaugurated in 1989. A 200-ton per-day kenaf mill was established in Thailand around this same time. American kenaf supporters were dealt a blow in 1998, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture substantially reduced its kenaf research funding, after more than 40 years of trials and $13 million in funding since 1987. It remains under intensive study in Japan, which lacks forest resources. More than 1,000 Japanese middle schools grow and study the plant each year.

Among the companies that have used kenaf in their catalogs and other paper products are Apple, Sony, Warner Brothers, The Nature Company, The Gap, Esprit International and Birkenstock. Motorola and Disney have printed corporate environmental reports on kenaf paper. Several books have been printed on kenaf, including David Brower’s Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run (HarperCollins). Earth Island Journal was the first magazine to be printed on kenaf paper, though that is no longer the case.

Kenaf could become a major fiber crop in the U.S., but efforts to establish a dedicated newsprint pulp mill for it have so far stalled because of inadequate financing. Conservatree points out that kenaf cultivation “can bring new life to rural economies shattered by the demise of their original industries.” In one such case, 40 kenaf-growing jobs were created in rural and economically depressed Tallahatchie County, Mississippi.

In 1994, the United Nations reported that kenaf was produced on about 500,000 acres worldwide, but there is considerable room for expansion. The largest producer today is China, with around 150,000 acres under cultivation. (U.S. acreage was only about 10,000 to 15,000 acres in 2003, and there is also some kenaf cultivation in Spain.) According to the 1996 report “Underexploited Temperate Industrial and Fiber Crops” by Richard Roseberg, “The potential area of U.S. kenaf cultivation could be as great as…five million acres.” The report says that in areas particularly well suited to kenaf cultivation, such as the southeastern U.S., kenaf could yield three to five times more annual fiber than southern pine. “Increasing demand for fiber for all applications should improve the economic conditions affecting kenaf development,” Roseberg wrote.

One of the strongest advocates for kenaf paper in the U.S. is Vision Paper, which planted its first experimental kenaf plots in 1990 and began producing tree-free paper in 1992. By 1996, Vision Paper was the only producer of tree-free paper in the U.S., with a crop of 2,000 acres. “Kenaf will become the main papermaking material,” predicts Vision Paper founder Tom Rymsza. “Trees don’t grow fast enough and we need to bring new life to rural communities.”

Vision Paper has been able to overcome several production hurdles, including the need for chlorine bleaching and pesticides. Its paper is chlorine-free (using a hydrogen peroxide bleaching process) and is grown without any insecticides. The company points out that because kenaf is grown for its fibrous stalk rather than for its fruit or flowers, it can eliminate the need for chemicals. There is some pollution associated with the chemical kraft process used to produce pulp from kenaf, though it is substantially less pollution than that of virgin wood pulping.

Vision Paper has completed a feasibility plan to build a kenaf processing plant in the U.S., and Rymsza says that such a plant could be operating within three years of financing. He firmly believes that kenaf could replace wood-based paper in the U.S., “though such a process would take 20 or 30 years. My view is that there is ample available acreage to grow kenaf,” he says. “The U.S. has 80 million idle agricultural acres.”

In 2004, Rymsza sees a paper industry in crisis. That presents an opportunity for the kenaf community to make common ground with the paper industry unions, which are losing jobs rapidly to overseas competition. “I just met with the Paper and Allied Chemical Workers, and I get a sense that the large paper producers are giving up on wood pulp from the U.S. and moving their business to countries that don’t have sustainable protection. I think the industry is a dinosaur using outdated models.”

Handling Hemp

Industrial hemp and marijuana are the same basic plant, but commercial varieties have a very low percentage of marijuana’s active ingredient, THC, and thus no conceivable use as a drug. Nonetheless, industrial hemp, which was Kentucky’s largest cash crop until 1915, fights an uphill battle today largely because of its unwarranted association with drugs in a highly anti-drug climate. Although High Times subscribers may constitute a cheering section for legalizing hemp, some hemp advocates see such allies as actually hurting the cause because they make the marijuana connection explicit.

Hemp is an extremely versatile product with a long history, and like kenaf has been cultivated since ancient times. The first paper sheets (circa 105 A.D. in China) were believed to have been made of hemp fiber. Hemp thus predates the use of wood for paper. Presidents Washington and Jefferson both grew hemp, though claims the Declaration of Independence was printed on it are hyperbole.

Beginning in 1840, American-grown hemp was used to make manila paper. Hemp cultivation has been illegal in the U.S. since the end of the Second World War, but its cultivation is encouraged in 29 countries around the world. The American hemp movement got started 30 years ago when Jack Herer wrote a landmark book on the many uses for hemp, The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Today, hemp cultivation is still illegal in the U.S., and it is grown mostly in western and eastern Europe, Russia, South Asia and Canada. Hemp is a very strong fiber, making it excellent for paper processing with post-consumer waste, and it is also easily bleached with chlorine-free materials.

Support for hemp’s reintroduction as a source of fiber is growing, partly because hemp products made from exclusively imported fiber are now a $200 million business in North America. Vermont’s Senate has passed a resolution urging the decriminalization of industrial hemp, and the state became the 11th to pass a resolution in favor of the fiber. Several states (including Maryland, Hawaii, North Dakota and Minnesota) have actually authorized production, though the federal ban takes precedence. Hemp advocates cheered after a federal appeals court decision in February that turned back Drug Enforcement Administration efforts to stop the sale of hemp-based food products.

Dennis Carlson, a wheat farmer in Bismarck, North Dakota who is facing declining prices for his crop, is one of an increasing number of growers who would like to see hemp legalized. “We’re all desperate,” he told the New York Times. “We’re trying to find something that will change our outlook, and hemp is one of many crops.” American farmers are watching their Canadian neighbors reap profits from hemp, and they want a piece of the action.

Hemp’s revival even in the absence of a domestic supply of pulp is inspiring. According to a 1999 report, the biomass yield of a hemp plantation and a pine plantation are essentially comparable over a 15-year period.

The Boulder Hemp Initiative Project estimates that hemp paper could become a $15 to $30 billion annual industry worldwide. At present, about 20 paper mills around the world use hemp fiber, with an estimated annual world production volume (mostly in India and China) of 120,000 tons, which is about .05% of all paper.

Because of its low production volumes, hemp pulp remains much more expensive than wood fiber ($2,100 per ton versus $800 per ton), but larger-scale production would bring those costs down. Hemp paper can be efficiently bleached with hydrogen peroxide, resulting in a totally chlorine-free (TCF) end product. More than 50% of the waste can be separated through a centrifugal process, and it is almost completely biodegradable. Non-woods like hemp contain a fourth as much lignin (the glues and sugars that are in all plant material) as wood, and that means less chemical and energy demand when the fiber is pulped, reports Living Tree Paper.

Living Tree, based in Eugene, Oregon, mixes industrial hemp and flax fibers with recycled office paper to yield a tree-free ream that retails for $6.99, not an enormous price premium over single sales of $5 tree-based copy paper.

Drawbacks to using hemp for paper include its great biological differences with wood, making it a poor material for existing large-scale paper mills. This problem has been addressed with unique pulping methods called organosolv (breaking the fiber down with concentrated acetic acid or ethanol) and bio-pulping (using fungi in place of synthetic chemicals).

Getting Active

Forest Ethics focuses on convincing large paper retailers to stock tree-free alternatives. A recent campaign against Staples, the largest office superstore chain, pointed out that the company’s paper sales were “driving the destruction of our endangered forests worldwide, including in U.S. National Forests, the forests of the Southeast, and old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.” The campaign urges the company to phase out all paper made from old-growth fiber, and to “make available paper made from agricultural fiber in all stores or other points of sale.”

As a likely result of the campaign, Staples said in late 2002 that it would increase its stocks of recycled and tree-free paper and cut back on old-growth products. Staples briefly carried Living Tree Paper hemp and flax paper, which Living Tree’s Carolyn Moran then described as “huge for us.” But the arrangement with the office products giant soon ended because Staples agreed to increase the post-consumer content of its paper to 30% overall, reducing its emphasis on non-wood sources. “We were actually satisfying their minimum weekly sales volume,” Moran says, adding that the company’s decision to stock many of its own private labels put shelf space at a premium. “Customer response was low and the price was relatively high,” counters Staples spokesperson Owen Davis.

In March, another activist target, mega-retailer Office Depot, announced that it was forming a “conservation alliance” with three groups, NatureServe, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy.

“Our next battle is with the catalog industry,” says Nancy Hurwitz, project director of ReThink Paper, which works in coalition with groups such as Forest Ethics and the Dogwood Alliance. Forest Ethics, which launched its catalog campaign last year, points out that American retailers send out 17 billion catalogs annually, and 95% of them are discarded unread. Very few catalogs have recycled content.

In what turned out to be a temporary development, Kinko’s announced that it would dedicate a special “green machine” copier at each of its locations. In March 2003, however, Kinko’s announced a new Sustainable Forest-Based Products Policy, developed in consultation with Rainforest Action Network (RAN), that promises no use of old-growth or endangered forest fibers and increased use of tree-free papers. Some Kinko’s stores sell Neenah paper partially made from tree-free fibers, and all offer 100% post-consumer recycled paper -- but you have to ask.

With activism against the use of old-growth timber increasingly finding receptive ears, and the already embattled paper industry suffering the double trouble of low pulp prices and devastating insect infestations on their southern plantations, the time would seem to be propitious for a revival of natural fibers. While they’re unlikely to say so, the paper giants listen when the environmental movement presents a united front (backed by the threat of boycotts) and offers a feasible plan for combining recycling with increased use of hemp, kenaf and other fibers.

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Jim Motavalli is editor of E/The Environmental Magazine. This article first appeared in the May/June issue of that publication.