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
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. …