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Paper from Wheat, not Wood

By WorldChanging Canada writer Rod Edwards.

There's an interesting development lurking in your magazine rack (provided you subscribe to Canadian Geographic): paper made from wheat straw—the stem & stalk waste product of grain farming. Indistinguishable from regular wood-pulp paper, printed products made of a percentage of wheat straw are notable not for their tactile qualities, but for their sustainability implications. As agricultural waste, wheat straw is perennially renewable so long as people farm. As a product, monetizeable wheat straw provides a diversified income stream for farmers. As a source of paper fibre, it takes pressure off the forests that traditionally supply pulp, and the species that inhabit them. Rick Boychuk, Senior Editor at Canadian Geographic notes that the "June issue uses sixty percent trees but looks and feels just like any other issue of Canadian Geographic."

Ottawa printer Dollco summarizes the potential impact of wheat straw in paper pulp:

The majority of Canada's paper is currently made from Boreal forests and Temperate rainforests. Straw from Canada's wheat harvest could produce 8 millions of tonnes of pulp—equivalent to the paper volume used by the North American newspaper industry every year. That could result in a saving of 100 million trees each year—without impacting food production or increasing energy inputs, while providing a new source of income for grain growers.

That's a powerful concept—completely re-inventing the North American pulp & paper industry to run on agricultural waste instead of cutting down forests.

The June Canadian Geographic "wheat sheet" edition was the product of a four-party initiative comprised of Canadian Geographic magazine, Ottawa printer Dollco, the Alberta Research Council, and environmental advocacy group Markets Initiative. The chief advocate behind the project is Market Initiatives' Nicole Rycroft, an Australian who is now a resident of Tofino, BC, and a champion for reducing dependency on forests for paper pulp. The Alberta Research Council (ARC) provided technical expertise, and Canadian Geographic and Dollco provided the means and media to demonstrate the product. That demonstration wasn't without its technical challenges, first among which is the issue of silica content. Higher in agricultural sources than wood pulp, silica turns to glass in the pulping process, traditionally rendering wheat straw difficult to use. The ARC team devised a "green" means of removing silica, making it possible to integrate agricultural pulp into the paper-making process. What makes the ARC silica-removal process "green" isn't mentioned in sources online, but the ARC wheat straw backgrounder is points out that agricultural pulp sources, like wheat straw, are less energy, water, and chemical-intensive.

The June "wheat sheet" printing of Canadian Geographic had to rely on agricultural pulp imported from China. In Canada, there is no source of agricultural pulp aside from the ARC's test facility, while China meets 20% of its pulp needs with agricultural sources already—a legacy from the use, historically, of rice and grain fibres for paper-making. Canadian Geographic and Market Initiatives suggest that the Canadian pulp and paper industry has been slow to change due to their virtually unfettered access to easily loggable boreal forests. CG and MI have positioned wheat straw as a challenge to the paper industry to begin integrating agricultural pulp. Given the wheat resource in Canada, the Canadian pulp and paper industry has an opportunity, with "wheat sheet", to take a leadership position in a growing market. Now that's an idea that shouldn't be papered over.


Front Image: Charmaine Swart
Inside Image: Charmaine Swart

Article from WorldChanging Canada

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While I applaud the idea of finding alternatives to wood pulp for papermaking, I question the use of "agricultural waste", i.e., wheat straw and other grain wastes for making something that is ultimately just waste itself. Wouldn't those agricultural wastes be of greater benefit to the environment if they were composted or plowed back into the soil to sequester the carbon and improve the soil's tilth?

Posted by: Sandra Bellinger on 29 Aug 08

Sandra: If the wheat straw is being used instead of wood, the carbon is being sequestered in the form of trees that aren't cut down.

Posted by: Bill on 29 Aug 08

My first comment may have disappeared into the ether, so I will try to reprise. Basically, I agree with Sandra.

I think these sorts of substitutions are very interesting, but the information is incomplete. Right now we turn soil nutrients into plants. If we continually remove the plants the soil will be depleted and will be unable to grow any more plants. We need to replace the nutrients. That is usually done with compost/manure or natural gas based fertilizers.

It seems like making paper out of the wheat straw and then trucking manure back onto the fields to replenish the nutrients lost when we trucked the straw away may not be the most sustainable.

Likewise, applying fertilizers derived from natural gas is clearly not going to work for much longer, since gas is peaking just as surely as oil.

Finally, we are also seeing peaks in other critical nutrients, like phosphorus. This will drastically curtail our agriculture.

So the question I would ask is, what is the permaculture of paper?

Posted by: Ruben on 29 Aug 08

This is exciting news, would love it if the Canadian innovation spread to China (which is shortly going to be the world's largest maker of paper products, if it isn't already, and makes little to no attempt to recycle any of it).

Yay Canada!

Posted by: Elyse Ribbons on 29 Aug 08

Is there some reason that the pages needed to be partially tree pulp? Does wheat pulp not make good quality paper all on its own?

Posted by: Stephen Williamson on 29 Aug 08

Sandra, the carbon in trees IS sequestered if you cut them down. They fall on the ground, they decay, they are buried ... it is an old method of sequestration called: coal. You must not burn the coal or the trees -- that releases what you've sequestrated.

Using wheat-stalks for paper is no better than if they were mini-trees. The sequestration is still there until it's lost. The only paper solutions that to me seem to have promise are reuseable "papers" based on complicated processes (a 'plastic' paper and the inks can be washed off) -- especially good for newspapers when you can return yesterday's newspaper to your newsagent before taking today's. It is a 'Cradle to Cradle' solution and I understand that the Silicone Valley Technical Institute is developing it.

Posted by: Michele Field on 30 Aug 08

Does anyone know what's the premium you're paying for using wheat straw (if there's any, which I guess there is..)?

Also, I am wondering if wheat straw is better in terms of both quality and price than hemp. Somehow I got a feeling hemp can be a very competitive alternative to virgin paper, especially in Canada where hemp is grown and the hemp industry is growing steadily.

Last thought - I guess the real incentive to use wheat straw, or other agricultural waste alternatives, will be when carbon dioxide will be taxed and then the pricing of wheat strew will be more competitive (if not even cheaper). This is the only way to make sure the June issue of the Canadian National Geographic won't remain a one-time green demonstration, and many publications will follow suit.

Raz Godelnik

Posted by: raz godelnik on 30 Aug 08

Have any comments been solicited from the paper recycling industry about whether paper made with a wheat straw blend would be able to be recycled with paper made from wood pulp or would wheat straw paper be a contaminate?

Posted by: Suzanne Boroff on 2 Sep 08

Another alternative use for a food crop? Not the best idea, however, I must say it is better than cutting the trees... Whatever happened to using hemp? It grows everywhere, requires no pesticides and is virtually low maintenance. In the United States we can not even grow industrial hemp; it must be imported. A native American tribe tried to get permission to grow it as a ways to support their community. It was denied.

Posted by: karol on 4 Sep 08

Another alternative use for a food crop? Not the best idea, however, I must say it is better than cutting the trees... Whatever happened to using hemp? It grows everywhere, requires no pesticides and is virtually low maintenance. In the United States we can not even grow industrial hemp; it must be imported. A native American tribe tried to get permission to grow it as a ways to support their community. It was denied.

Posted by: karol on 4 Sep 08

I think this is interesting and will certainly revolutionize other alternatives to come up, end of the day...there has to be a solution to the immense deforestation in the name of manufacturing paper.Having said my comments regarding wheat being used in manufacturing paper goes with Raz Godelnik, I agree with him..

Posted by: MRINMOY on 7 Sep 08

Interesting. I just watched a program about champagne production and the effects of pesticide usage on soil quality. I would be very interested to see the longer term effect on productive soil if more of the natural mulching material is removed to make scrapbooking paper.

The answer is less paper and not different types of raw material for paper.

Posted by: Gordon on 16 Sep 08



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