Skinny Kenaf Cuts into Tree-Based Paper Market This Thin, Environment-Friendly Plant, Used to Make High-Quality Paper, Attracts More Buyers, Helping to Save More Forests

Article excerpt

PICK up a copy of the latest Earth Island Journal, an international environmental magazine. All 45 pages look, feel and even smell like paper pulped and flattened from a tree.

But touch and look again. You're holding paper made from kenaf, a fibrous, tall, and skinny plant related to hibiscus and cotton.

And if the Earth Island Journal, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Japan's NEC Corp., the state of West Virginia, and a growing number of businesses and organizations around the country are right, the age of kenaf paper (pronounced kuh-naff) may be just around the nearest tree stump.

For the last five years, interest in, and use of, kenaf has risen steadily. The plant, once used by ancient Egyptians to wrap mummies, has a host of environmental advantages over trees as a source of paper. According to the American Paper Institute, 272 million trees are used each year in the US to print newspapers and magazines.

Many countries around the world, having come close to exhausting their forests, are searching for other sources of fiber to make paper products. China is reported to be farming some 600,000 acres of kenaf each year.

The US Department of Agriculture, after studying some 500 plants for fiber content, concluded that kenaf is the most viable plant alternative for paper production. Currently the USDA spends about $1 million a year on kenaf research, trying to develop heartier, more fibrous strains. Farmers in California, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi grew about 4,500 acres of kenaf last year.

"Kenaf is 20 times more productive on the same amount of acreage than southern pine, because it grows more quickly to 14 feet tall in four to five months," says Thomas Rymsza, founder of KP Products in Alburquerque, N.M., the largest producer of kenaf paper in the US.

Kenaf also requires fewer chemicals in reducing it to a pulp, and because the fiber is naturally whiter than wood, hydrogen peroxide is used as a bleaching agent instead of chlorine, which produces dioxin. "Kenaf pulping can be done with less energy, and the waste water that comes out of the plant requires very little treatment to meet Environmental Protection Agency regulations," says Mr. Rymsza.

In addition, kenaf newsprint is not prone to yellow, is a little stronger than tree paper, and according to Justin Lowe, managing editor of Earth Island Journal, "it provides 20 percent less rub-off than previous paper we've used, and requires less ink because it is less porous."

The retail cost for a ream of high-quality, 8-and-a-half-by-11 kenaf paper is between $13 and $14 in some stores and environmental catalogues. "If you look at the cheapest tree-based copier paper you can buy," says Rymsza, "we are about eight times as much, but so are a lot of other papers. …