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Woody Harrelson’s New Wheat-based Paper Takes Trees Out of the Equation

RP Siegel | Wednesday June 19th, 2013 | 13 Comments

Woody HarrelsonWoody Harrelson is a well-known actor, seen in both TV and film in roles ranging from Woody the bartender in Cheers in the 80s, all the way to Haymitch Abernathy in last year’s Hunger Games, with many stops along the way, including two Academy Award nominations. He has also made a name for himself as a staunch defender of the environment, particularly when it comes to North American forests. Having confined his activities to political activism in the past, he has now taken a huge step beyond protest, toward redirecting our ravenous appetite for paper products away from the forests and onto a much less extractive source: agricultural waste.

How important is this? According to Canopy, an organization that promotes forest conservation, undisturbed forests absorb nearly one-fifth of the CO2 released by burning fuels. When we cut down trees, not only do we reduce the size of one of the world’s last remaining major carbon sinks, but we also trigger the rapid release of decades, if not centuries’, worth of stored carbon. Globally, 71 percent of the world’s paper supply comes from bio-diverse forests. A single issue of the NY Times Sunday edition is said to require 63,000 trees.

I spoke with Woody in advance of today’s announcement regarding the U.S. distribution of Step Forward paper, a product of Prairie Pulp and Paper, a company that Woody co-founded. This new paper is comprised of 80 percent wheat straw in place of wood pulp, making it the lowest environmental impact paper on the market. As of today, Step Forward paper will be available at Staples. Also joining the conversation was Jeff Golfman, President of Prairie Paper & Pulp.

TriplePundit: How did you get involved in this wheat straw paper initiative?

Woody Harrelson: Well, the forests have been my issue for a long time, going back to 1996 to the protest on the Golden Gate Bridge objecting to the logging of ancient redwoods in Northern California (he was arrested), and back to 1992 when I protested the opening of 6 million acres of ancient forest wilderness in Montana to extractive industries. I got really upset about this. I called up my friends at Greenpeace and we started working to try and stop that. But along the way, I realized that even if you are successful in stopping logging in this or that forest, it just comes up somewhere else, like whack-a-mole (an arcade game where moles popping up through holes, dare you to knock them back down with a mallet). So the thing to do is to look at the way that paper is made. Of all the trees cut down in the world, anywhere from three to six billion a year, half of those are used to make paper. So to redefine the way that paper is made would be a really important paradigm shift. And that’s what we’ve done here. We now have a paper, made from 80 percent wheat straw that is better ecologically than any other paper out there. And it’s now going to be available for the first time in the United States through Staples.

3p: Do you have a plan to increase production as demand grows?

WH: Yes, we’re trying to grow it organically. It’s a huge industry, global demand is some 400 million metric tons a year and in fifteen years, that’s expected to double. So the strain on the forest is just incredible. Our vision is that within 3-5 years, we will have the first non-wood pulp paper mill in North America. It will be an eco-mill that is off the grid and the paper will be 100 percent tree-free, all from ag[ricultural] waste, what’s left over after the farmers have used it. It will be the same price or less than regular paper. That’s when the revolution will be kicking up into another gear.

3p: What about other types of paper products, newsprint, paper napkins, etc.?

WH: Ultimately we’ll be able to do all of that, but right now we’re focusing on office paper.

Jeff Golfman: I should add that the boxes we package our paper in are also made from agricultural waste. Eventually, we’ll get to the point where we can start marketing tons of different paper options.

3p: So where are you getting the paper from now?

WH: We’re making it in India. Jeff found a mill that could do it chlorine-free using ag pulp that can meet all the specs we gave them. We are happy with that for now, until we can get our own mill set up over here.

3p: Making it over here will eliminate the need for all that shipping, which must surely increase your footprint.

JG: If you go on our website, you will see that we commissioned a lifecycle study. And even with the footprint of shipping overseas, we still have a lower GHG and lower total footprint score than all the other papers that are being sold in North America today. Once we get into factory production of a paper that is 100 percent tree-free, and renewably-powered,  here in North America, we will set a new standard around the world for eco-friendly paper.

3p: So eventually you plan to move from 80 percent to 100 percent tree free?

WH: Yes, we have already produced some 100 percent non-wood runs. What struck me about all that was the looks on the workers’ faces. They could tell that they were taking part in something revolutionary. These people have been working in paper for years. But to finally have a roll come off the presses that is 100 percent tree-free, that’s very exciting.

3p: So what is keeping you from going to 100 percent now?

JG: It took us 14 years of R&D to get the first sheet of paper out to the market, so in order to get to 100 percent, we still have several months and several millions dollars of R&D to do.

3p: Looking down the road, we’re going to see more and more people looking at their smart phones and tablets rather than printing things out. We’re going to see more and more people recycling. And now we’re going to be producing tree-free paper. Do you think we’ll get to a point in our lifetime where we might have zero impact on our forests?

WH: To this point, paper demand has only been trending up, despite the internet and everything else. So even though people thought we’d get the paperless office, that’s not what the statistics show right now.

Considering all the changes in the pipeline, I remain optimistic about this. As Ramez Naam has aptly shown in his book, The Infinite Resource, projections such is these consistently fail to take the impact of innovation into account. And I believe that this innovation that is being announced today, is one that is going to make a difference, to our forests and to our way of life.

Prairie Pulp & Paper provided me some samples of Step Forward paper, which I tested with both a color inkjet and a monochrome laser printer, both with excellent results. Plus, there was the satisfaction of knowing that by using it, I am saving trees.

[Image credit: Courtesy of Prairie Paper & Pulp]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Dave Shires

    Great interview… sounds like an excellent concept – classic waste reuse. I should point out, however, that using trees to make paper isn’t necessarily “bad” – assuming the trees are coming from properly managed forests and tree farms. In fact, properly managed paper forests can be a carbon sink and protector of nature for up to 100 years before being harvested and replanted.

    What Woody and Jeff are doing is still awesome, but let’s not knee jerk against tree paper completely :–)

  • abe froman

    Truly inspirational. Thank you for spotlighting this venture. How does this compare to using paper made of recycled content?

    • Dayna

      Hi Abe! The performance of Step Forward Paper is comparable to all copy paper, including recycled and virgin. Individuals and businesses should support both straw-based papers and recycled papers to reduce our reliance on ancient and endangered forests. We need all of these environmental solutions. Check out the lifecycle study to find out how it compares: http://stepforwardpaper.com/footprint

      • abe froman

        Thanks for the information!!

  • Ed

    So when this takes off and tree farms are cut down to make way for more wheat fields, has anybody done a study to see what the carbon effect of this would be? Every well intentioned idea comes with unintended consequences. I tend to doubt that substituting one bio starch for another really has a huge net impact.

    • kirstin

      They are using wheat straw waste, not growing extra wheat just for paper.

    • John Schafer

      Great observation about unintended consequences. What people need to realize is that a vast majority of paper made in the US comes from forests which are managed by landowners who are getting a return on their investment. And they are following environmentally sound practices (google Forest Stewardship Council and check out all the papers that are made from trees coming from FSC certified forests). So, the forests are maintained because the landowner can make an income by harvesting the trees, but then replanting to replace the harvested trees. Once the landowner cannot make an income from the trees (forests), then the landowner, as any good business person would do, will search out alternative uses of the land to generate an income. They may not all be turned into wheat fields, but some may be re-purposed to farming. Other uses could be mining, drilling, or other development, the vast majority of which would involve removing the trees, without replacing them. So by “Saving Trees”, we are actually condemning the forests. A classic story of unintended consequences. People should do a little research & thinking things through before they blindly support a venture such as this one.

  • The Scrivner

    Assuming that they are using wheat straw where the wheat kernel has already been removed, then what would the effect be on not returning the nutrients back into the soil? Wouldn’t additional fertilizer eventually be needed to offset the removal of the wheat straw?

  • kirstin

    What is the best way to deal with the paper at end of life? Is it recyclable, or can it be composted?

  • Zach

    Ironic his name is “Woody.” But this is awesome, and probably attractive to farmers as well. Straw isn’t much of a food source for livestock, so there isn’t much of a product tradeoff.

    And to Dave’s point, I believe that the carbon absorption rate decreases immensely in aging trees, so replanting trees in a properly managed system would actually increase the sinks effectiveness, no?

    • Dave Shires

      yes – that’s quite right. Properly managed forests are super important and fine to harvest from time to time. That said, using office paper wastefully is still a bad thing. And I’m not the least bit worried about wheat waste being so popular that we start cutting down forests to grow it… i still stand 100% behind these guys, it’s a great concept.

  • Phil

    This article is misleading in terms of its comments regarding pulp and paper made from well managed and certified forests. For two responses to the inaccuracies mentioned please see these two articles below that address wheat-based paper and the comments made by Mr Harrelson. Dear “Woody” …wood is good when managed and used responsibly..it’s one of our most sustainable raw materials on the planet.

    http://twosidesus.wordpress.com/2013/01/

    http://www.twosides.us/US/Woody-Harrelson-Says-Making-Paper-from-Trees-Is-Barbaric–Is-It

  • Joshua

    Not all paper is created equal, and despite gains, there’s still only a fraction of our forest in the US that are managed according to the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council, which is the only credible mark of responsible forestry on products. Phil, below, says that wood is good when managed and used responsibly, but the current economics reward the lowest common denominator, so there’s still a lot of improvement needed in a lot of papers. Instead we need to be rewarding FSC certified, recycled and ag residue papers as a mixed fiber basket for sourcing. And yes, a lot is recycled, but its missing the fact that its still one of the biggest products in our landfills because there’s so much made and wasted in the first place. Agricultural residue papers will be part of finding that balance that the resource constrained future requires.