Will Canadian project take tree-free paper mainstream?

My Clean Break column in today’s Toronto Star is about a consortium of companies, lead by Praire Pulp and Paper Inc. out of Winnipeg, that’s trying to perfect a process for producing high-grade photocopy and printer paper out of agricultural residue. Backed by money from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, the group believes it can produce tree-free paper from wheat straw and flax straw at high enough quality and volume that it could compete against tree-based products. If the group can pull it off, it would reduce stress on forests, give farmers a new revenue stream, and reduce the amount of crop waste that might otherwise get burned (not nice from an environmental perspective).

There are many challenges to overcome and it may be many years before the process proves viable, but SDTC remains hopeful. Meanwhile, Alfred Wong of Vancouver-based Arbokem Inc. has his own process for producing tree-free paper and is involved in many projects in Europe. After 10 years of trial and error, Wong is certain he’s got the right approach, and he’s even trademarked the name “Agripulp” in anticipation of his success. If either Wong or Prairie Pulp can get it right, this would be a “game-changer” in the pulp and paper industry, says SDTC’s Rick Whittaker.

4 thoughts on “Will Canadian project take tree-free paper mainstream?”

  1. Mr. Hamilton’s blog raises an interesting question: in the long-run, will multiple uses for natural resources like straw push demand well beyond supply? It’s not a problem now, but it could be in the future.

    Take the example of straw. It is used to feed livestock during the winter, which supports human food supplies. It could be used as a biofuel, as I’ve learned from a gentleman in Denmark conducting research and development for this purpose. Finally, Mr. Hamilton has now pointed out a 3rd potential use: paper and paper products.

    By solving one problem, could humans create another? It’s happened before. In Bangladesh, thousands of tubewells were dug by international organizations to provide access to bacteria-free water. 10 years later, the world realized that water in this region has extremely high levels of arsenic, a problem which persists today.

    At the least, these unintended consequences are something to consider and discuss as innovation and technology begins to solve our over-dependence on things like trees and fossil fuels.

    On that point, if anyone knows if a biofuel such as corn-derived ethanol can support both food and fuel supplies, I’d love to learn more.

  2. I would say that it’s highly unlikely in the short term due to the pine beattle infestation in British Columbia. There’s a huge amount of dead wood available to be salvaged and it will depress the price of cellulose for paper and other products until it is delt with or BC is deforested.

  3. Definitely not likely in the short term. As the article points out, it will take 5 years to prove the process viable for commercial production, so who knows what the market price for forestry products — or the status of the dreaded pine beattle — will be at that time. Fact is, between now and then and beyond there will be a drive in the market for more “eco-friendly” products, the more affordable the better. None of this is to say that paper made from agricultural residue is going to do away with wood-based paper, rather it will diversify the mix and at least ease pressure on forests — all while giving farmers an added stream of revenue and an option other than burning crop waste in the open air.

  4. In an era of high energy prices, wheat and corn prices are so low it makes sense to make use of them.

    If demand grows relative to supply, as the first comment noted, prices for agricultural goods will skyrocket and we consumers will be forced to pay more for bread (and all the other goods produced from corn and wheat).

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