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Sprint Introduces Paper Bills Made from Wheat Straw

Words by Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Leadership & Transparency
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If you are a Sprint customer, this month your statement might be printed on a tree-based paper alternative. Sprint is piloting a new type of paper for its customer mailings that is made from a wheat straw byproduct. The pilot program marks the first time wheat straw paper has been used for customer correspondence in the U.S.

The wheat straw paper is made by Prairie Paper and called Step Forward Paper. It looks the same as tree-based paper, but it’s more sustainable. In other words, it contains very little material made from trees. The Step Forward Paper is made from 80 percent wheat straw byproduct and 20 percent FSC-certified paper from tree-based pulp.

To learn more about the company’s groundbreaking use of wheat straw byproduct-based paper, I talked to Keanon Swan, manager of strategic partner relationships and postal alliances for Sprint.

TriplePundit: Can you give me an overview of Sprint’s use of paper derived from wheat straw byproduct?

Keanon Swan: We continue our ambitious and innovative efforts to mitigate our impact of paper use. This is exploratory. We're looking at highlighting the Step Forward product with about 2.5 million customer letters starting in August.

3p: What prompted this pilot?

KS: Going back as far as 2012, we launched our ecoEnvelope, a two-in-one reusable envelope that reduces paper use. At the same time, we were exposed to agricultural residue as a potential paper product. So, we began exploring it then, but we needed time to allow the ecoEnvelope to be in production, and that worked successfully.

We got it right after the next innovative solution, and that was wheat straw. We began doing some investigation research into it and then some testing. That lead us last year to test a small portion of the wheat straw. Those tests were promising, and we just took the leap and scheduled the production volumes to be delivered in August.

3p: What are the environmental advantages of using paper made from wheat straw byproduct?

KS: We understand the Step Forward product -- the wheat straw product, in particular -- requires 65 percent less land area to produce a ton of paper on an annual basis compared to virgin tree-based paper, and about 50 percent less land area than paper with 30 percent recycled content. Those numbers are intriguing to us.

3p: Are there cost saving savings associated with it?

KS: Currently, the product costs the same as a 30 percent post-consumer waste product. If we order the same quantities, we would see price parity with our virgin product.

3p: What would the farmer typically do with the wheat straw?

KS: It's wheat stubble, and ordinarily the farmer would plow it under or burn it. When you're talking about a farm with hundreds of thousands of acres, it adds up very quickly. There’s no shortage of content.

3p: Are there any other companies that are using wheat straw to make paper?

KS: Prairie Paper's Step Forward product is available through Staples. But we are the first to put it in a roll form and use it in a high-volume, transactional print environment. We're taking it from the flat reams of paper into these 1,000- or 2,000-pound roll and using it in high-speed printing and insertion equipment to manufacture our printed bills and statement. In this case, we're using it for statements to do a live test to see how that performs in market. I'm not aware of anyone else using the product. What I understand from Step Forward, we're the first ever to use it in this application. We just like to think we can get beyond some of the traditional barriers in the print mail space.

Image credit: Sprint

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

Read more stories by Gina-Marie Cheeseman