HOW WE STARTED THE PROJECT TO SPIN STRAW INTO PAPER
The math didn’t work out. It was 2004. We were gaining ground on protecting two big areas of temperate rainforest in British Columbia – Clayoquot Sound and the Great Bear Rainforest. But we didn’t want to push the problem of deforestation and degradation into some other forest in the world. We knew that the marketplace for paper would demand fibre from somewhere – Brazil, Indonesia, the Boreal forest – if it could not get it from the temperate rainforests of British Columbia. On top of that, paper consumption was projected to increase around the world (as has happened). So, one step forward and two steps back – protect one area, lose another two. There were (and still are) two strategies to address this conundrum:
- Reduce virgin paper consumption globally
- Introduce alternative sources of fibre for making paper
The first option would require the big corporate consumers to increase use of recycled paper and reduce excessive paper use. The second required building mills that could use agricultural fibre rather than wood to make pulp for paper. The problem was that none of the pulp and paper companies in North America were interested in changing from wood to non-wood feedstock. On top of that, the available non-wood pulping technology in 2004 was old and dirty. Exactly the challenge I wanted to take on!
I emailed a proposal to Nicole Rycroft, Executive Director of Canopy, and to Todd Paglia, the Executive Director of ForestEthics (now called STAND.earth). I pitched them on a joint project to get pulp and paper made from agricultural fibres, like wheat straw residues, established in North America. It was a wild idea – there was no modern technology available, the existing industry was not on side, pulp mills cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and none of the environmental funders had anything like this on their list of priority activities. Nicole quickly replied “yes”… but we’d have to find funding.
A few hours after I’d sent the email, Todd wrote me back. He’d received my proposal, he said, and he was interested but, like Nicole he felt funding it would be a challenge. But then something incredible happened. A woman walked into the ForestEthics office an hour after he’d received my proposal, asking to speak with him. She had just shut down her little non-profit organization, called Fiber Futures because, after 10 years of trying to get agricultural fiber paper going in the US, she was burned out. She’d spent the last of the organization’s funds on her final project when she received a letter. Inside was a donation notification. A previous donor to the organization, who had given $100 a number of years earlier, had recently passed away, leaving $100,000 to Fiber Futures in his will. On the very day that Todd had told me the agricultural fiber project could not start without funding, funding walked into his office. That is how Second Harvest Paper Project was born. Magic happened!
Jeanne Trombly, the one woman show at Fiber Futures, put aside her plans for two years and together we searched out tech innovators, met with pulp mills to see if we could convince them to add a non-wood pulp line and initiated a project to produce a commercial scale run of non-wood paper to test on high speed printer presses. Eventually the money ran out and I was hired onto the Great Bear Rainforest negotiating team. Canopy took over the project, putting the indomitable Neva Murtha on the file, who dedicated year after year to building support for the alternative amongst major paper customers in Canada and the US. It would take years yet before the convergence of technology, willing partners and an open-minded paper mill would produce the first test paper at a large scale in North America. But that’s a story for the next blog.
By Valerie Langer
Fiber Solutions Specialist