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Leon Kaye headshot

Can Wheat Straw Paper Really Save Forests?

By Leon Kaye

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 GreenGoPost.com 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)]

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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