THE GUARDIAN: Sprint to switch to wheat straw paper in two-month sustainability trial

June 4, 2015. Originally published in The Guardian by Ucilia Wang.

In August, millions of Sprint customers will receive letters from the telecom giant that will look like ordinary pieces of white paper, but will be made from fibers from wheat fields instead of forests.

Sprint is launching a two-month pilot project to test run printing papers made primarily of wheat straw, an agricultural waste that is typically burned. The project is part of the company’s search for an alternative to using paper made of wood, which is the main source of paper material today. Doing so reduces the need for cutting down trees, an important carbon emission absorber, while cutting pollution from burning wheat straw.

“Wheat straw is ready for prime time,” Keanon Swan, manager of strategic partner relationships and postal alliance at Sprint, said during the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego this week. “Hopefully we will pave the way for creating national demand.”

The US is the number one producer and consumer of wood pulp, and the number two producer and consumer of papers and paper products, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. The pulp and paper industry uses 40% of the trees cut for industrial uses worldwide. The US, China, Japan and Canada are home to over half of the world’s pulp and paper production, collectively churning out 400m tons per year, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which equate the weight to 80 million elephants.

While companies are seeing an increasing number of their customer base opting for paperless bills and notices, they still rely heavily on paper to communicate with consumers. In fact, for many companies, paper mailers are more effective at attracting and retaining customers than their online counterparts.

Overall, 60% of the paper used by Sprint is for marketing materials, while about 35% is used for bills and notices for its 55 million customers, said Darren Beck, Sprint’s director of environmental initiatives. The remaining paper is for printers and other office use, he added.

Sprint is buying 20 rolls of papers through Prairie Papers, made of 80% wheat straw and 20% wood fiber for its pilot project, which will see it send out about 2.5m notices over August and September, Swan said.

In 2011, Sprint set goals to be met by 2017 for printing paper use, including buying paper with 25% recycled content, reducing paper use by 40% (compared with 2007) and using paper made only from forests that receive sustainable certification from the Forest Stewardship Council. By the end of 2014, 95% of the printing papers used by Sprint came from certified forests and 21% came from recycled sources. These figures exceeded the overall paper reduction goal by reaching 83% by the end of last year, Beck said.

Sprint hopes to receive no customer complaints during the wheat straw trial, such as illegible print or crumbling paper. The wheat straw paper shown by Swan at the conference felt slightly stiffer than conventional paper. The company will decide later which version to continue using.

The project will use wheat straws and paper made in India, but Sprint wants to buy the products from within the US, Swan said. Buying local will reduce the cost and the carbon footprint of shipping paper from the other side of the world. It also will help to recycle agricultural waste from the world’s third largest wheat producing country.

Finding domestic sources could be a challenge, however. Currently there isn’t a pulp mill in the US that process wheat straw for making printing and writing papers, said Nicole Rycroft, executive director of Canada-based Canopy, which is advocating for using alternative, non-wood pulp materials for paper production.

Much of the wheat straw pulping and paper production today takes place in China and India. Dell uses boxes made with 15% wheat strawfrom a plant in China, for example.

“We are hoping to kickstart domestic production to avoid the carbon impact of importing pulp and to protect domestic forests,” Rycroft said.

Other types of paper products also are made from wheat straw. Kimberly-Clark runs a mill in Alabama that processes wheat straw into pulp for paper towels and toilet paper that will contain 20% wheat straw. The company announced a newline of wheat straw products in April this year, and will initially sell to business customers rather than consumers.

A new pulp plant, set to break ground this summer in Washington State, will process alternative materials including bamboo, miscanthus and wheat straw, for sale to paper-product makers. The Columbia Pulp plant will be able to produce 400 tons per day, a small volume compared to conventional pulp mills, said Mark Lewis, the company’s chief technology officer.