Skinny Kenaf Cuts Into Tree-Based Paper Market

This thin, environment-friendly plant, used to make high-quality paper, attracts more buyers, helping to save more forests

PICK up a copy of the latest Earth Island Journal, an international environmental magazine. All 45 pages look, feel and even smell like paper pulped and flattened from a tree.

But touch and look again. You're holding paper made from kenaf, a fibrous, tall, and skinny plant related to hibiscus and cotton.

And if the Earth Island Journal, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Japan's NEC Corp., the state of West Virginia, and a growing number of businesses and organizations around the country are right, the age of kenaf paper (pronounced kuh-naff) may be just around the nearest tree stump.

For the last five years, interest in, and use of, kenaf has risen steadily. The plant, once used by ancient Egyptians to wrap mummies, has a host of environmental advantages over trees as a source of paper. According to the American Paper Institute, 272 million trees are used each year in the US to print newspapers and magazines.

Many countries around the world, having come close to exhausting their forests, are searching for other sources of fiber to make paper products. China is reported to be farming some 600,000 acres of kenaf each year.

The US Department of Agriculture, after studying some 500 plants for fiber content, concluded that kenaf is the most viable plant alternative for paper production. Currently the USDA spends about $1 million a year on kenaf research, trying to develop heartier, more fibrous strains. Farmers in California, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi grew about 4,500 acres of kenaf last year.

``Kenaf is 20 times more productive on the same amount of acreage than southern pine, because it grows more quickly to 14 feet tall in four to five months,'' says Thomas Rymsza, founder of KP Products in Alburquerque, N.M., the largest producer of kenaf paper in the US.

Kenaf also requires fewer chemicals in reducing it to a pulp, and because the fiber is naturally whiter than wood, hydrogen peroxide is used as a bleaching agent instead of chlorine, which produces dioxin. ``Kenaf pulping can be done with less energy, and the waste water that comes out of the plant requires very little treatment to meet Environmental Protection Agency regulations,'' says Mr. Rymsza.

In addition, kenaf newsprint is not prone to yellow, is a little stronger than tree paper, and according to Justin Lowe, managing editor of Earth Island Journal, ``it provides 20 percent less rub-off than previous paper we've used, and requires less ink because it is less porous.''

The retail cost for a ream of high-quality, 8-and-a-half-by-11 kenaf paper is between $13 and $14 in some stores and environmental catalogues. ``If you look at the cheapest tree-based copier paper you can buy,'' says Rymsza, ``we are about eight times as much, but so are a lot of other papers. We are making a high-quality, off-set stationary paper, and I'm selling double what I did last year. Basically, we can't make it fast enough.''

``Most of the agricultural substitutes for wood-based paper have to meet a pretty demanding technological criteria,'' says Alan Rooks, editor-in-chief of PIMA magazine, the trade publication for the Paper Industry Management Association in Arlington Heights, Ill. ``Until some real production scale projects get going, it's hard to prove its viability one way or the other.''

Many tree-based paper mills today produce 500 tons of paper a day. Rymsza says this year he has produced 120 tons of kenaf paper, and will make about 60 tons more in the next two weeks. ``The US Forest Service subsidizes the timber industry by building roads into the national forests so they can cut trees,'' says Rymsza. ``The price they pay for taking out a log is below the actual value of that log. Kenaf doesn't have any subsidy going for it.''

Assessing what might be the paper industry's reception to kenaf if use of it continues to grow, an industry executive says, ``It might be similar to solar energy versus the oil industry. There is a big, installed base already there. But there is a lot of pressure on the forests in general, and it's an industry that is not dominated by a handful of companies. If people could make a competitive grade of kenaf paper, I don't think there would be resistance to it.''

Scott Paden, assistant director of purchasing for West Virginia, says the state has used kenaf paper for newsletters and brochures without printing problems for the last three years.

``Yes, it's a little more expensive,'' says Mr. Paden, ``but the paper has worked really well on high speed duplicators. Also it's lighter than previous papers, so we can shave a little from mailing costs.''

San Bernadino and Monterey counties in California use kenaf, and a number of universities have used it for printing projects. Kinko's, a national chain of printing stores, is using kenaf paper in stores in Berkeley, Ca., Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Missoula, Mont.

In Japan, NEC, the electronics giant, is experimenting with kenaf in an artificial atmosphere to grow 30 percent faster than normal.

``At this point our use of kenaf is very much a pilot project,'' says Mr. Lowe. ``The True North Foundation from Portland, Ore., gave us a grant of $10,000 to publish on kenaf paper. No trees were used in publishing this issue of 16,000 copies. If buyers will support kenaf, I see a promising future for it.''

* This story updates a Dec. 17 Monitor article that profiled a Texas kenaf farmer.

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