Innovation Case: Wheat Paper

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In last November’s issue of Corporate Knights, Editor-in-Chief Tyler Hamilton wrote about Winnipeg-based Prairie Paper Ventures and its president Jeff Golfman:

Golfman has spent the past 15 years developing quality paper made from wheat straw. His goal is to create an affordable product with very low environmental impact that is 100 per cent tree-free. It would complement existing recycled paper products on the market and help take pressure off the world’s old-growth forests.

So far, Prairie Paper has reached 80 per cent straw content in copy paper that began selling last year at Staples Canada and later through Staples USA. Now, the company wants to come to market with large-format paper that can be used for publishing books, reports and – that’s right – magazines.

If Golfman can build enough demand in North America, he can justify moving ahead with the straw pulp and paper mill he wants to build in Canada.

Currently, Prairie Paper gets its product manufactured at a mill in India. Golfman’s objective is to build the company’s first paper mill in Manitoba’s Red River valley, where hundreds of thousands of tonnes of wheat straw are burned annually. But that means demonstrating enough purchase orders to support a 300,000 tonne per year operation.

The story is a reminder of how, even with so-called paper-less offices, tablets, and ebooks, the amount of paper produced continues to rise. Golfman has partnered with actor Woody Harrelson and Clayton Manness, who served as Manitoba’s finance minister between 1988 and 1993. One of their goals is to generate enough demand for straw-based paper in North America to support a scale facility located in Canada.

Hamilton wrote:

Forests could use the help. About 40 per cent of the annual industrial wood harvest goes toward making paper and paperboard products, with the United States and China representing 40 per cent of global production, according to the 2012 instalment of WWF’s Living Forests Report.

Paper production growth has somewhat levelled off in North America, but in China and other Asian markets demand for paper packaging, tissue and printing paper is on the rise. The good news is that paper recycling is carrying more of the fibre load. The amount of recycled fibre used in global paper production jumped from 43 per cent to 53 per cent between 2000 and 2010, and groups such as WWF remain hopeful it can reach 70 per cent by 2020.

But recycling alone is unlikely to halt deforestation, given the seemingly insatiable demand that the Chinese have for virgin and recycled fibre. Increasingly, it imports recycled fibre from North America, which has the effect of driving up the price. For this reason, even some established pulp and paper producers recognize that wheat straw waste and other agricultural residues are likely to become important ingredients in the papermaking cookbook.

Dell Computer is just one company already using wheat straw fibre in shipping boxes. As part of a program it launched in August, Dell will initially require that boxes contain 15 per cent wheat straw blended mostly with recycled paper fibre. The percentage of straw fibre is expected to increase over time, the company says.

The computer giant is getting those boxes from Taiwanese papermaker Yuen Foong Yu Paper (YFY), which this summer opened a facility in China’s Yangzhou city that is dedicated to making pulp out of wheat straw. Hewlett-Packard and Procter & Gamble are among other international companies interested in the process, the company says.

Illustrating the second and third-order effects with which any new innovation must contend, Hamilton’s piece includes a perspective by Graham Kissak, director of risk management and environment at Canadian paper manufacturer Catalyst Paper:

One challenge he cites is the low density of straw compared to wood chips. One cubic metre of wood chips represents about 500 kilograms, while the same volume in wheat straw would run between 25 and 100 kilograms. “If I’m going to transport that straw to my mill, say by truck, it means we would need somewhere between five to 20 times more trucks on the road,” explains Kissak, adding that more trucks means higher transportation costs and fuel emissions. “That low density is a fundamental problem with straw. It’s a big, big challenge.”

Lower density also means you’d need to retrieve that straw from an area up to 40 times larger than a harvestable forest, so not only would there need to be more trucks on the road, those trucks would have to travel longer distances to the paper mill. (That said, unlike slow-growing forests you can harvest straw from the same area two or more times a year.)

Then there’s the issue of storage. The seasonality of harvests means that materials collected must be stored somewhere if a paper mill is to operate year-round. While wood chips can be collected all year and stored outside, wheat straw must be kept dry and is more susceptible to mould and discoloration. There’s a big cost, however, to building and maintaining physical storage.

“For people wanting to make straw-based papers, I think their manufacturing costs may be higher than they anticipate, simply because of the logistical challenges,” Kissak says.

And is the wheat straw option as sustainable as it seems? Some argue that removing agricultural residue from a farmer’s field depletes soil nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, which are necessary to sustain healthy crop yields in future years. That may create a need to add more commercial fertilizers to the soil, making things potentially worse from an environmental perspective.

To see the full article, please visit: http://www.corporateknights.com/prairie



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