Will Kenaf Ever Cut It?

Forty percent of all wood cut by the timber industry in the United States goes into paper products. Because of this, a big chunk of our deforestation problem could be solved if paper companies had a resource for pulp other than trees.And other sources already exists. The U. S. Department of Agriculture first began testing alternative fibers as early as World War II. According to the tests, a plant relative of cotton called kenaf (rhymes with giraffe) is the "most viable" substitute for trees in paper making. Kenaf, which has grown in Africa for at least a thousand years, produces more pulp per acre than any tree species, takes less toxins to process than trees do, and can bring jobs to rural farm communities.Why hasn't this wonder plant replaced wood in paper making? The main reason is that the costs of re-tooling processing plants can run into 100's of millions of dollars.But there are other reasons: First: The paper industry questions the strength of kenaf. Second: Kenaf grows mainly in Southern states, creating a storage and transportation problem for northern mills. Third: While trees can be harvested as needed, kenaf must be harvested only once or twice a year, compounding the storage problem.Fourth, and by far most important: all these factors combine to make kenafe more expensive than comparable, tree-b ased papers. Though Vision's tree-free paper costs more than the cheapest copier paper, it is comparable in price to high-quality printing paper with a high post-consumer content. Despite these challenges, Albuquerque based kenaf paper maker, Tom Rymsza (pronounced Rim-shaw), said his company, Vision Paper, is intent on making paper from kenaf that is superior in quality and lower in price than comparable tree paper. Rymsza, who began researching kenaf 10 years ago, left a high-paying corporate job in New York to pursue his dream of making an environmentally-friendly paper. He says the plant could be a better source for paper than trees because it grows to a height of 10 to 14 feet in a five month growing season and yields twice or even four times as much pulp per acre as the fast-growing soft woods commonly used for paper making, such as Southern Pine.Rymsza also said Kenaf promotes sustainable agriculture because it tolerates salty and otherwise marginal soil and can be rotated with other crops to restore depleted soil. It grows successfully without a huge investment in irrigation equipment, and requires little pest control because the stalks, not the leaves, are used to make pulp.The American Kenaf Society has members who are growers, researchers and business people from as many as 50 countries, but there are fewer than half-a-dozen mills producing kenaf pulp world-wide. Ten years ago in the U. S., no one grew kenaf commercially and no one produced kenaf paper. Now there are two mills and several others planned if they can overcome the commercial obstacles.The USDA first began testing kenaf fiber as a rope making alternative during World War II when jute and other rope materials of the Pacific islands were in danger. The USDA ran extensive tests on dozens of alternative fibers.Continuing and expanding USDA research, innovators at major universities such as Mississippi State and North Carolina State have investigated replacing many dwindling resources with kenaf. Researchers have made kenaf into particle board and roofing, fire logs, clothing, textiles, carpet backing and padding, and even animal feed and litter. Kenaf can be thermo-heated into a substitute for plastic, thereby decreasing our use of petroleum resources. This relatively undeveloped option would have enormous environmental impact.Nonetheless, substituting kenaf for trees in paper could make a huge difference because according to Earthwatch Institute, only one fourth of the world's original forests remain undisturbed. The approximately two billion hectares of remaining trees, and the ecosystems they support, are disappearing at the alarming rate of about 17 million hectares annually. According to the Wilderness Society, an increasing number of paper companies obtain their pulp primarily from tree farms, but many still cut old-growth forests, employ clear-cutting, waste resources and pollute with toxic chemicals. Planting trees in tree farms is good for earth's atmosphere and is fairly simple. But the ecosystems of ancient forests take hundreds, even thousands of years to replenish.David Haskett, director of Louisiana Pacific's pulp division, said L. P. is working to "fix things done wrong in the past." He said L. P. researches alternative pulp sources on an ongoing basis, but there are many other environmentally sound practices like recycling, that L. P. is currently pursuing. "We plant a lot of trees, which helps the environment. We are practicing good forestry and using forestry residuals like sawdust, wood chips and branches."Haskett said major players in the paper industry still question the strength of kenaf paper. But extensive USDA tests indicate that at least kenaf newsprint is as strong as tree newsprint. The USDA research concluded that kenaf is the "most viable" tree-paper substitute. Kenaf newsprint is also brighter, slower to yellow, and less susceptible to ink run-off and smudging. As early as the 1970's, the American Newspaper Publishers Association endorsed the use of kenaf for newsprint following test printings of at least 10 daily newspapers. The latest of these came in July 1987, when the Bakersfield Californian printed two sections on kenaf newsprint.Regardless, Haskett said that kenaf does not meet many industry standards. "We have a proprietary criterion of 10 to 15 critical success factors," Haskett said. "Once kenaf has the characteristics the markets will support, it will interest us. So far, many people have made exaggerated claims, but no one has delivered specific data proving kenaf's strength."Tom Rymsza, who is one of the few kenaf paper makers in the country, said that his paper is so closely comparable to tree-based printing paper in all major characteristics that the differences are negligible."Kenaf is slightly superior in some areas and slightly inferior in others," He said. "We're talking about a one to two percent difference. Those factors have nothing to do with performance in all paper applications anyway." He said his paper is provably stronger and lighter than tree paper. It is also just as versatile in its printing uses. Rymsza said paper industry giants criticize kenaf because they have large investments in tree farms, timber lands, leases, equipment and tree pulping mills. He said he is suspicious that interests from the paper industry even influenced the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that is known for effectively fighting environmentally harmful policies. Rymsza found 40 inaccuracies in a supposedly conclusive report published by the EDF. The report, which the EDF based on a study of only a dozen out of hundreds of alternative fibers, concluded that recycling and using tree-pulping side products for paper is a better option than the use of any alternative fiber."There is so much information out there that even one of the most prestigious environmental organizations can get in way over its head," Rymsza explained. The alternative paper community was outraged by the report. For years activists have been working to raise public awareness. Many individuals and groups have worked in conjunction with organizations such as Save America's Forests and Earth Island Institute's Rethink Paper Project, which has been lobbying in Washington DC to halt mismanagement of forests and gain government support of tree-free paper.Rymsza sent a memo outlining the 40 flaws to the EDF, alternative paper proponents and paper industry representatives as well. The EDF never responded."What I'm doing is a David and Goliath scenario," Rymsza said. "Starting a small company and trying to compete with the fourth largest industry in the US is not easy." Rymsza first started to experiment with growing kenaf in 1989, when after a year of research, he moved from New York to Arizona to pursue the "long road" to commercialization of kenaf."I got positive results even though I did everything wrong," Rymsza said. The next year the farmer who rented him the land agreed to grow kenaf on seven-tenths of an acre and irrigate it with the main crop. After five months they had a five-ton harvest. Rymsza moved to New Mexico where kenaf would be a more competitive crop because water and land are cheaper. He successfully grew kenaf in four separate areas of New Mexico and has since purchased fiber from farmers in New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.One of the problems with kenaf is that it originally came from the tropical and subtropical climates of Africa. Because of this, most strains of kenaf are genetically better suited to grow in Southern states. This generates transportation and storage problems. Rymsza has to ship each harvest fro

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