The two-time Academy Award nominee thought it was pure craziness that, as a society, we’re fine with cutting down trees just so we can make products—namely paper—that are used once and then just tossed away as trash.
Since then, it has been Harrelson’s dream to find an economical, efficient and eco-friendly way to make paper that doesn’t rely on wood pulp.
“Maybe my name should have tipped me off to what my future would be,” the actor joked earlier this month during a phone interview from Atlanta, where he’s currently shooting the sequel to The Hunger Games.
“If you think about it, over half of all paper used is just used temporarily,” he explained, adding that much of it comes from ancient and threatened forests, including Canada’s boreal forest. “I’d like to see that changed.”
Harrelson, in fact, is more than just seeing that change. As co-founder of Canadian cleantech venture Prairie Pulp & Paper, he’s helping to lead it. The Winnipeg-based company has developed a cost-competitive approach to making paper out of wheat straw – the stuff that farmers often burn as left-behind field waste.
To Harrelson’s delight, Prairie P&P is starting to get some serious commercial traction after 14 years of working to perfect its patented recipe and process. In August, for example, the company’s “Step Forward Paper” – a mix of 80 per cent wheat straw and 20 per cent Forest Stewardship Council-certified sustainable wood – hit the shelves in Staples Canada stores as part of a partnership with environmental group Canopy.
Its next challenge was to show the broader marketplace the degree to which its paper is more sustainable. Earlier this year, the company commissioned a lifecycle environmental impact study from carbon management firm Offsetters.
The final report, publicly released today, found that the process of making Prairie P&P’s straw paper consumes on average half the energy as paper made from 100 per cent virgin wood. At the same time, it emits at least 40 per cent less greenhouse-gas emissions.
On most metrics – energy use, wastewater production, and emissions – it also beat paper made of 30 per cent recycled materials by a significant margin. Only 100 per cent recycled paper came close to matching the straw paper’s environmental footprint.
“In and of itself this product sets a new eco-standard for paper,” Jeff Golfman, co-founder and president of Prairie P&P, said in a recent interview.
So how did a famous Hollywood actor with the name Woody end up becoming the co-founder of a Manitoba company trying to reduce our use of wood? The seed of the venture was planted in 1998 when Harrelson began researching the market.
“I had a meeting with this engineer who is very knowledgeable about the making of non-wood pulp and paper mills,” Harrelson recounted. “I asked him who was the closest to making this happen in North America. He turned me on to Jeff.”
The engineer, it turned out, was working for Golfman, who had been travelling the world assembling a team of technical folks capable of making good on his own straw paper vision.
Golfman, an honours graduate in business administration from the Richard Ivey School of Business, is a self-described environmentalist and eco-entrepreneur who 20 years ago developed the Blue Box recycling program for the City of Winnipeg. After that, he started a company that manufactures “sweat shop free” furniture before moving on to tree-free paper.
“Woody heard about what I was up to,” recalled Golfman. “And literally 24 hours later I was on the phone with him chatting about it.” Two weeks later he was on a plane to Boston to meet Harrelson in person, and 48 hours after that they shook on a deal.
Harrelson became one of the company’s main investors. “We’ve been business partners ever since,” said Golfman, adding that funds have also been received through the federal and Manitoba governments, as well as Sustainable Development Technology Canada.
Harrelson, who in 2009 received an honorary degree from York University for his contributions to environmental education, described their first meeting as a “great talk” that convinced him of Golfman’s commitment to the project. “I could just tell with his energy and positivity that he was the guy who could move this paper forward.”
And move it forward he has. The company is working exclusively with a pulp and paper mill in India that has so far produced 40 million sheets of Step Forward Paper, which looks and feels just like any other printer-quality paper on the market.
Golfman’s plan over the next five years is to build a production facility in Manitoba capable of making paper that is 95 per cent wheat straw and 5 per cent flax, both of which would be sourced locally from the Canadian prairies.
At the same time, the company aims to build awareness of the product throughout Canada and the United States over the next two years, eventually moving into Central and South America. The Canadian facility will serve those regions, while the mill in India will continue to supply Asian, African and European customers.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Golfman.
Harrelson is hyped about the prospect of seeing paper come from farmers, not forests. “To me this is a big one,” he said. “This one has been a long-term dream and I’m excited about where it’s at right now.”
And he gives due props to his Canadian partner. “It’s incredible how far Jeff has come with this.”
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.