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

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.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His publications include business and technical articles as well as books. His third, co-authored with Roger Saillant, is Vapor Trails, an adventure novel about sustainability. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. He is also active in his community of Rochester, NY. A regular contributor to Mechanical Engineering magazine, RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner to the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.. Follow @RPSiegel on Twitter. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com