Saturday, August 30, 2008

Can wheat straw replace trees as a source of paper?

Today I read a very interesting article at WorldChanging by Rod Edwards ("Paper from Wheat, not Wood"), who reports from Canada about exciting developments in what seems as a very eco-friendly alternative to trees as the source of paper: Wheat.

No, it's not the case of corn here where a food crop is transferred into (what some think is) a product's green alternative crop. We're talking here about pure agricultural waste - wheat straw.

The issue comes up following the printing of the Canadian National Geographic magazine's June issue, which was printed using 20% wheat straw. The rest of the paper was made of 40% post-consumer recycled paper and 40% virgin paper.

Well, the wheat straw pulp was imported from China (because straw-pulping facilities have yet to be retrofitted in Canada), and that's not that eco-friendly, but the point was definitely made in terms of feasibility and quality of this alternative. And the potential is huge, as we can learn from the Canadian printer Dollco, which was part of this effort and explains in its news release what could be the impact of using wheat straw for printing paper in Canada:

The majority of Canada's paper is currently made from Boreal forests and Temperate rainforests. Straw from Canada's wheat harvest could produce 8 millions of tonnes of pulp—equivalent to the paper volume used by the North American newspaper industry every year. That could result in a saving of 100 million trees each year—without impacting food production or increasing energy inputs, while providing a new source of income for grain growers.

Sounds good to me. Kind of the win-win deal we always look for in our search for green alternatives to virgin paper made of trees. I always thought that agricultural waste or crops such as hemp (which personally is my favorite of all these options) can become eventually a significant part of the basket of green alternatives to the virgin made paper. The main obstacle I guess it the cost.

I couldn't find anything about it in Edwards' article, but I my guesstimation is that the main obstacle in spreading this alternative is cost - wheat straw is probably more expensive than virgin paper. I guess this reality won't significantly change until carbon dioxide will be taxed and then the pricing of wheat strew will be more competitive (if not even cheaper). This is the only way to make sure the June issue won't remain a one-time green demonstration, and many publications will follow suit.

The wheat revolution can definitely start in Canada. This point was also emphasized by Nicole Rycroft, executive director at Markets Initiative, which was also part in this initiative, who said: "Canada is well positioned to become a leader in a brand new resource industry that is also an environmental solution for the twenty first century. Our world needs environmental solutions. Here's one at the farm gate and we've identified hundreds of commercial paper consumers ready to buy it."

Kudos to all the parties behind this initiative - Canadian Geographic magazine, Ottawa printer Dollco, the Alberta Research Council, and the environmental advocacy group Markets Initiative! We will keep following to learn how the wheat alternative will be further developed.

Raz @ Eco-Libris