How to grow stronger newsprint fiber faster

IT sounds like an appetizer at a Middle Eastern restaurant. But it's the result of American public and private entrepreneurship working toward a product that's stronger, brighter, and longer-lasting. Kenaf is a non-wood fiber that originated in Africa, has been around more than 3,000 years, and recently has been tapped in the United States as a source of newsprint. A member of the hibiscus family, it looks like okra - or cotton without white stuff - and grows 10 to 15 feet high anywhere cotton can.

When the Bakersfield Californian printed its editions on kenaf July 13, officials billed the event as the first full-scale printing of a major newspaper using newsprint from the fiber. A week later, sections of the St. Petersburg Times and Houston Chronicle tried using paper made from kenaf. And the Dallas Morning News is set for a trial run as well.

When the results of these four tests are in, a joint-venture partnership is set to construct a $250 million kenaf newsprint mill in south Texas. Early reviews from Bakersfield say the newsprint is stronger, whiter - resulting in less ink needed and brighter colors. And since kenaf does not contain lignin, as wood pulp does, the paper doesn't yellow. Production costs for kenaf are 25 percent lower, and pollution is less as well.

But the key asset, say those investing in its future, is the fact that it is a renewable resource, maturing in less than three months. The 7 to 11 tons of dry fiber produced per acre make it cheaper to grow than loblolly and Southern pine, which can take 20 to 30 years till harvest. Newspapers have traditionally used newsprint made from wood pulp. About two-thirds of the pulp used in the US is imported from Canada, at a cost of about $3 billion a year. The 150 or so acres of kenaf that are now sprinkled through California, Texas, and Oklahoma could expand to upwards of 30,000 to 40,000 acres next year, if other paper managements are as enthusiastic as those in California.

``There were no problems with tearing and less lint than the wood pulp newsprint,'' said Jerry Stanners, chief executive officer of the Bakersfield Californian. ``It's a smoother paper, and initial test data show it performed better than Southern pine - which is what about 40 percent of US papers now use.'' The paper has a vested interest in the new fiber's success as one-third of a tripartite venture. The other concerns helping to shepherd the experimental paper production are Agrifuture Inc. of Bakersfield and Kenaf International. Canadian International Paper has gotten in on the act with a recently signed formal agreement with Kenaf International for feasibility studies.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), working to find new industrial uses for American crops in the late '70s, tried developing kenaf into newsprint with experiments at the Wall Street Journal and the Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star, among others. But when the energy crunch came, emphasis shifted from kenaf to hydrocarbon research.

The American Newspaper Publishers Association looked at the feasibility of kenaf in the 1950s, but only in the last few years have the scarcity and cost of wood pulp made the new fiber attractive. The publishers held symposiums and national conferences and, in 1981, hired Charles S. Taylor to do a major study. That study, a doctoral thesis, coincided with publishers' increasing concern about the availability and cost of newsprint, and farmers' search for new, profitable crops. The thesis said that kenaf could become a viable newsprint product if a systems approach could be developed for marketing, growing, harvesting, and developing equipment to turn it into pulp. Dr. Taylor is now general manager of Kenaf International.

That's what the joint-venture group formed in 1981 has been doing. ``We've got everybody involved from farmer to publisher now,'' says Taylor. The primary effort in the intervening six years has been development of harvesting equipment, a pulping process, and public awareness that kenaf exists as an alternative. ``There are the skeptics,'' says Dan Kugler, of the USDA's Cooperative State Research Service. ``Using the old adage that `if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' many people don't think to consider new ways of doing things. A process of initiation about kenaf has to take place.''

The USDA, for its part, has gotten back into the process, signing an agreement with Kenaf International last year. ``It will be an important day for the Southern half of the US if this project gets going,'' says Mr. Kugler. ``When the market is there, you'll see farmers want to grow it for its profit potential - which, considering the demand for newsprint, could be quite high.''

The kenaf used for the Bakersfield Californian was planted and grown in the lower Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. It was then baled and shipped to a pilot processing plant in Springfield, Ohio, where it was turned into pulp. From there it was shipped to a Canadian International paper mill in Three Rivers, Quebec, and made into 15 tons of newsprint, about 90 percent kenaf.

Paul O'Connell of the USDA says kenaf would have to be grown near its processing plant to be viable economically, though it is not necessary to construct a new mill from scratch to accommodate the new technology. Most of the differences in processing kenaf come at the pre-pulping stage, shaving the stalks down and storing them.

If there is a downside to kenaf, slowing development at the moment, it is the battery of Environmental Protection Agency tests that have to be satisfied before permits are granted for production. But initial testing shows fewer chemicals, less effluence, and fewer immediate environmental problems than existing pulping plants produce, say USDA officials.

``Newspapers see it as a way of stabilizing prices of newsprint because of the new, competitive alternative,'' says Joe Prendergast, manager for newsprint and transportation of the publishers' association. ``We know that kenaf can work and be cost and quality effective; all that's been needed is for someone with big bucks to come along and do it. That's what this latest venture is doing.''

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