And then the Work Began!
“Build it and they will come!” that’s the aphorism. Imagining it would be just that easy. Canopy set out, in 2004, to build the market for non-wood (agricultural residue fibre) paper within corporate sectors, like publishers and printers, expecting that then non-wood pulp and paper companies would get busy building mills to service the demand. Demand and supply. That’s how the world works, right? Fast-forward 14 years and the first modern non-wood pulp mill is being built in North America. At least a half dozen others are in the process of raising the financing to build. It’s exciting, but why did it take so long? Here’s what we’ve done over that 14 years after our ‘fairy tale’ start. (Read part 1 of our blog)
First, we invested time proving that commercial quality paper actually could be made with pulp made from wheat straw. We collaborated with the Alberta Research Council (now called Alberta Innovates) to print a whole issue of Canadian Geographic magazine on a high-quality coated sheet made from wheat straw pulp and recycled paper. After months of searching across wheat country North America for wheat straw pulp we came up empty. We had to import the wheat straw pulp from China for the trial in Canada. The paper – made of 20% wheat straw pulp and 20% recycled and 20% FSC virgin – worked like a charm on the fast presses at Dollco Printers. It also took the ink beautifully for sharp images. Success!
We carried on to do wheat and flax straw and recycled content special editions book runs with famous authors Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Yann Martel. Proof positive! So, now that straw paper worked for books and magazines, the mills were going to get built. Well…not so fast.
By 2010 technology innovations for making cleaner, better performing non-wood pulp at more competitive prices, without creating a toxic mess, were starting to evolve in the US, Europe and China. New ventures started picking the technology up and the move to raise financing to build mills in North America began. As of today, Canopy has helped hundreds and hundreds of corporations, that purchase millions of tons of paper each year, to develop eco procurement policies. These policies include a section on preference for non-wood paper (e.g. wheat straw, bamboo, miscanthus grass, rice straw) content. But there still wasn’t supply to meet that market demand.
You might ask, “Why didn’t the existing pulp and paper industry build the mills or adopt the technology?” We suppose that the wood pulp mills feel about non-wood pulp for paper the way Blockbuster felt about Netflix or GM felt about electric cars in the 90’s. Nervous. The conventional pulp industry and their financiers have not been rushing in to back agricultural fibre pulp mills in the Canadian Prairies or the American Midwest. So, Canopy began drumming up interest within the investment community. We co-hosted a webinar for investors with the Provincial governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. We have cold-called venture and equity type investment firms and met with many potential investors in New York, San Francisco and Toronto to inform them about the markets we’ve built for ag fiber pulp and paper.
This story started with the storybook ending of an unexpected infusion of funding to kickstart our Second Harvest campaign 14 years ago. Now Columbia Pulp, the first commercial scale wheat straw pulp mill in North America will start production of 145,000 tons/year in Washington State in early 2019. Canopy has done a market survey that has documented market demand for pulp and paper requiring many, many more mills of equivalent size. If you want to be part of a forest conserving transformation of the paper industry here’s how to help kickstart the paper revolution:
- It’s a supply chain – work it: Make your intention to buy paper with ag fiber content
- Agreements to purchase attractive to investors: Help the new ventures find the financing they need by entering into an off-take agreement with a non-wood pulp mill. If you don’t buy pulp, see #1 above.
- Tell your investor friends to check it out. The future of paper is not wood. (Hint: Canopy has a list of ventures in North America and abroad that are looking for financing or customers. Investors and pulp/paper buyers can contact usfor a connection)
Let’s keep our forests doing the work they do best, sequestering carbon, making rain across continents and providing homes and security for species and communities. Paper can be made with agricultural fibres, and that could mean a fairytale ending for forests after all.