Paper from Wheat, not Wood

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


This sort of substitution is very interesting. What would be really interesting, though, would be to run through the whole cycle.

I assume that wheat fields are like agricultural land everywhere--if too much nutrient is removed, it must be replaced. We can replace it with compost, or manure or chemical fertilizers. Trucking manure onto wheat fields might make the straw paper a bit of a zero-sum game. Using natural-gas based fertilizers is clearly not much longer for this world.

So, what happens when we remove all the straw, be it for paper or strawboard? Do we destroy the ecosphere, just twenty years later? How would paper fit into permaculture?

Posted by: Ruben on August 29, 2008 1:14 AM