Can Wheat Straw Paper Really Save Forests?

Wheat straw, step forward paper, wheat straw paper, lifecycle analysis, Leon Kaye, deforestation, clear cutting, pulp and paper, recycling
Wheat straw has potential to complement tree-based paper–but its viability is unclear

Earlier this summer fellow 3p writer RP Siegel covered the launch of Step Forward Paper, a printer paper made of 80 percent wheat straw – the rest is traditional tree pulp – available at Staples. The actor Woody Harrelson, a veteran political and environmental activist, is one of the product’s most visible backers. For now the paper is manufactured in India, but the company has big goals to expand and build a mill in North America that will be off-grid and churn out paper made from 100 percent agricultural waste.

Innovations like Step Forward are welcome in a world where the population is increasing, the middle class is growing and resources are constrained.  Furthermore, some pulp and paper companies, including Asia Pulp and Paper, have had a dubious environmental record. The idea of a tree-free paper is certainly tantalizing; but could it really scale and become a viable alternative the way Harrelson and Step Forward promise?

First, let’s take a look at the impact the pulp and paper industry has on forests. The oft-heard cliché you hear at the office, “you’re killing trees,” has a degree of truth to it. But at least here in the United States, agriculture, development and lumber are far bigger drivers of deforestation than paper. Across the world, forests have been primarily disappearing because of clear-cutting for farmland and pasture. Other factors, such as the growing demand for biofuels and therefore the conversion of land into lucrative crops such as palm oil are among the larger threats to the world’s forests.

But ranking the causes of deforestation is a pointless exercise anyway. As NASA has explained, deforestation occurs because of several interdependent factors. The building of a new road will cause some deforestation, and then adjacent forests are open to logging; finally, ranchers and farmers will clear any remaining forest to raise cattle and crops. Whatever trees that remain are then felled for firewood, another massive factor behind deforestation—and increasing desertification.

“[In the U.S., forest] loss is further compounded by the sale of forest lands to firms and individuals whose primary focus is not active forest management for timber production, forest conservation, or other purposes. With the loss of an active management focus and the revenue streams that often accompany it, the survival of these forests and their associated ecosystem services is in question.” – National Report on Sustainable Forests, 2010.

Let’s return to the United States, where the total amount of forested land remains relatively stable and has even increased in recent decades: 751 million acres in 2010, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Land development is frequently behind the loss of forests at a microeconomic level. In fact, one of the biggest reasons behind the loss of trees in the U.S. is the fact that many landowners, including forest products firms such as Weyerhaeuser have sold lands they had owned. Such divestiture, in turn, has led to sales to companies more interested in developing the land (a nice way to say clear-cutting it for new real estate) than managing the forests for regular income.

Further, consider the difference between stock from managed timberland – where a single species is grown in neat rows, destined to be cut just like any other kind of agricultural product – and stock from old growth forests we think of when we contemplate camping in the great outdoors. True, an old-growth forest lends itself to greater biodiversity than a managed forest growing one species of tree—but a managed forest is still a better eco-systemic option than a golf course or ex-urban housing development.

Finally, we cannot leave out recycling as a factor saving our trees. Sure, we could do better, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated 66 percent of paper consumed here has been recovered—impressive considering how many municipalities and commercial properties lack a recycling program.

Yet concerns and complaints over the pulp and paper industry still rage on. Depending on the source quoted, we are led to believe as much as 42 percent of the world’s forests are lost to the production of pulp and paper. So could wheat straw and other agricultural waste help save the world’s forests?

The biggest question is whether there is enough wheat straw and other sources of agricultural waste to allow the manufacture of this paper to scale and become a viable alternative to wood-based paper. Clean energy companies have struggled with the production of renewable fuels because of the lack of reliable sources of feedstock, and the challenges companies such as Step Forward will confront are similar. Other fibers such as those from flax and hemp have shown promise as alternative sources for paper, but again questions over whether enough raw materials can be grown—at a price viable for the farmers who grow them—will fester.

Step Forward’s lifecycle analysis provides minute detail about the amount of agricultural waste that results from the harvest of wheat, but the numbers strike me as ambitious. After all, a certain amount of wheat straw must be left on the land to be tilled back into the soil. Even the U.S. Department of Energy, which has been more proactive on clean energy development the past decade, advises biofuel producers how much “agricultural residue” must be left on cropland—and there is no reason why those U.S. Department of Agriculture standards would not apply to a company such as Step Forward or its competitors.

Finally, while I want to see companies such as Step Forward succeed, one glaring fact about the company’s promises and lifecycle analysis stands out. No one has reviewed the study conforming to ISO 14044, the environmental management international standard covering such assessments. Such an omission is odd in this era of increased transparency. Step Forward only offers a blurb stating “an advisory group” of “experts” reviewed the study, but the study names no one. We expect the big paper firms to back up their claims about their studies and environmental claims—and we should expect the same from companies touting their alternative products supposedly making a difference.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credit: Wikipedia (Bluemoose)]

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

6 responses

  1. Leon,
    According to folks associated with Step Forward, the list of advisors is shown on page # 3 last paragraph and in more detail on page 37 appendix C :
    ” To ensure the quality of this report, an advisory group of environment
    and paper industry experts have reviewed and provided feedback on the results and
    methodologies. The advisory group consisted of representatives from Tetra Tech Wardrop, Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, Canopy, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Conservatree, Climate for Ideas and EarthColor. ”

    The list is as follows:
    Neva Murtha (Lead)

    Darby Hoover
    Senior Resource Specialist
    Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

    David Podmeyersky
    Sustainability Director

    Jim Ford
    Climate for Ideas

    Susan Kinsella
    Executive Director

    Tim ten Have,
    Project Manager
    Tetra Tech Wardrop

    Wade Chute
    Team Leader, Pulp and Paper
    Alberta Innovates Technology Futures (AITF)

    In my assessment, it appears that these folks did due diligence in ensuring the environmental integrity of this process.

  2. It would indeed be interesting to know more about the economic incentives that keep forests intact vs. developed. ie – if we start using wheat products for paper, does that actually mean forest owners will call it quits and build golf courses?

    Good exercise in unintended consequences, though I can’t imagine it’s really much of a threat at the moment…

    1. Very interesting but not new. In 1953 when I was a printer’s apprentice we would used a material called:” Stroo Bord” translated “Straw Board” that was in the days that paper was still made out of rags and the use of trees for paper was only starting.

  3. First, trees are a harvestable resource as is wheat. Think of trees as wheat, but on a 12 year growth cycle. With sustainable forest initiatives, we replant and harvest. Therefore, why is there a push towards wheat? What unfulfilled need does this meet?

    To me, its a silly idea that will only serve to drive up the price of wheat. It may sound good at first but once you dig down, what’s the benefit? Anytime someone discusses transferring a current food resource into an alternative source of paper, I ask what happens when it becomes more lucrative to sell wheat to paper makers than bread makers, how will we make bread and feed our neighbours? We are having a tough time doing that already?
    The Corn Ethanol situation in the USA should serve as an example of the unintended results when we try to manage the economy. Heavily subsidized, Corn producers make more selling to fuel producers than to food markets. Although we have gained a source of expensive fuel, we have lost food production as a result.

    Again, trees are a renewable resource. We plant, harvest and plant again. Just because trees grow slowly should not make them less environmentally favourable. Plus, most importantly, most of us don’t eat trees. Think big picture when discussing this kind of radical change

    1. Ron :

      The paper is made from waste from the farmers that is typically burned or landfilled. Please read what the article actually says before making your uniformed and illogical conclusions.

      It does not increase the price of food and is actually doing the opposite by helping the famers reduce prices. The ethanol issue is a totally different scenario and can not happen with wheat as corn is not a waste material and unlike wheat it is subsidized.

      Suggesting that harvesting trees is eco-friendly is laughable. Suggest that you do some homework on that one.

      1. I suggest that YOU do your homework. Ron hit it on the button. Trees are a renewable resource. If you did some background research you would understand that there is more forested land in the US now than there was 50 years ago. The impact of deforestation for lumber, paper pulp etc has been offset by sustainable forestry practices. The bigger impact to the environment that should be considered is the carbon footprint of the converting and bleaching process, and transportation. It’s yet to be shown if converting alternative fibers into paper is a less energy intensive process than converting wood fiber.

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