Weaving a role for straw-based paper

Canopy, a Vancouver-based environmental group strives to create business case

• This story appears in the most recent edition of The Publisher, industry paper for Newspapers Canada

By John Devine

It may or may not break a camel’s back, but it does make fine bedding for farm animals, and it’s what’s left over after the edible bits are removed. There’s also a lot of it left strewn about a field following harvest.
Straw, the stock that remains after the grain has been claimed, has a multitude of uses, from the aforementioned bedding to the weaving of baskets. Now, environmentalists have found a new use for it, one they hope will alleviate the need to log carbon- and species-rich forests.
Canopy, the Vancouver-based forest-advocacy group, is in the midst of a campaign to kick-start commercial-scale production of a straw-based product it’s calling Second Harvest Paper, made from straw and recycled paper.

“If we’re going to really be successful in achieving conservation of forest eco-systems, we’ve going to have to find other ways to meet business needs … for paper,” Nicole Rycroft, executive director of Canopy, told The Publisher.

“Kick-starting commercial-scale production of straw-based pulp and paper is part of that long-term systemic solution for forests.”
A practical application of the product can be found between the covers of a limited special edition of Margaret Attwood’s new book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.
The author has said she was drawn to the trial to demonstrate that demand for paper can be met using the straw-based product rather than the traditional source, trees.
“Second Harvest Paper is the kind of practical innovation that could make paper from endangered forests ancient history,” Canopy quotes her saying.
It’s also the first book in North America printed on the innovative paper.

“This special edition run of the Attwood title is a high-profile way of demonstrating that commercial-scale production of straw-based paper is really just around the corner … it underlines the fact that in 2011 we don’t need to continue to cut down 800-year-old trees.”

The Attwood book is not the first usage of the paper, however, in a print product. In 2008, the Canadian Geographic’s summer edition was printed using straw-based paper, also a Canopy initiative.
Straw is a plentiful resource that’s now being left to rot on fields, says Rycroft, who adds there is enough leftover straw in North America to keep up to 800 million trees standing every year, and that kick-starting an industry based on the production of straw-based paper would also yield economic benefits for communities across the country from a new resource-based industry.
So, the obvious question for the newspaper industry: is it a viable alternative to newsprint?
“Absolutely. There is no technical reason in terms of final product and price models that we have … that this couldn’t be a viable option for newspapers across North America.”
There aren’t any newspapers in North America using straw-based paper, and Canopy has yet to do a newspaper trial, but current research indicates it would be a viable alternative to newsprint for publishers, says Rycroft, who adds a number of newspapers in China and India print on straw-based paper.
The paper for the Attwood book was produced at the Cascades Fine Papers Group’s mill in Saint-Jérôme, Quebec. Even though the country is one of the largest grain producers in the world, much of the straw residue is burnt or buried – it’s essentially a waste-management issue for farmers, says Rycroft.
Viewing straw as a resource rather than a problem would not only negate the need to dispose of it, it would spin it into a commodity with revenue potential. However, before that happens, some structural changes are needed.
“We currently lack the ability in Canada to turn (wheat and flax) straw into pulp, so that’s what Second Harvest is really focused on – kick-starting commercial-scale production of straw-based pulp and papers.”
Canopy has identified strong market support for the product, with demand for straw-based paper at more than 800,000 tons.

“There are five leading paper producers that are looking at this in terms of business feasibility for them moving forward, as a priority business strategy. And as part of their involvement in this paper trial, Cascades has actually moved it from a area of exploration and interest to one of their business priorities moving forward.”

Rycroft describes Canopy’s role in promoting straw-based paper as being the inspiration behind the campaign, viewing the paper as a systemic solution for forest conservation.
“We’ve proven product viability, both with this special edition run of Margaret Atwood’s book, as well as the 2008 run that we did of Canadian Geographic, summer issue.”
Canopy develop the idea for Second Harvest Paper in 2004, and began talking with Margaret Attwood and her publisher two years ago, so making the product mainstream is an ongoing strategy, which includes marketing the economic benefits of creating straw-based paper, along with the environmental ones.
“All the business modelling and price projections we’ve done shows that it should be at least at par, and at commercial scale it should even be a little more competitive, than conventional papers,” says Rycroft of the cost of producing the paper.
Straw-based paper looks and feels like the traditional product, and it can be recycled, says Tara Sawatsky, Canopy’s corporate campaigner.

“The paper completely hits the specs of what you expect in conventional paper … and it can be fed straight into the municipal recycling stream.”

Obstacles remain in the path of straw-based paper becoming a mainstream product. With the product being relatively new, paper producers need convincing of its commercial viability and quality, says Rycroft, who adds there are not insignificant start-up costs in a required retrofitting of mills.
But a changing market and the ongoing greening of the economy presents opportunities and expectations for paper producers, she says.
“We’ve seen initiatives like the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement come forward because there is a greening of the marketplace, that major customers are expecting more of their suppliers than just product that will run without problem at an affordable price … that doesn’t come with a heavy ecological footprint.
“Second Harvest is going to become, I think, an important business strategy for players who want to stay relevant, and at the lead of the pack in terms of paper producers in North America.”

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