What’s Old is New Again – Paper from Plants


The time for a pulp and paper revolution has come. Mixing vats of tree pulp with various chemicals to produce newsprint, book grade, copy paper, cardboard packaging and viscose has been a blessing and a curse. Pulp and paper is wonderfully useful in so many contexts, but too much of a good thing leads to bad outcomes. Not surprisingly, the proliferation of paper goods and viscose materials is a driver of forest degradation. The (re)invention of modern pulp manufacturing using plants, like wheat straw, flax straw, switchgrass and bamboo, holds the promise of giving our forests and rivers the welcome break they need. Fortunately, the revolution has come! To accelerate at the pace needed for forest protection, what’s needed is the injection of financing to build modern agricultural fiber pulp mills. The market is ready. Are the investors?


For millennia, people around the world made paper from pliable plants like mulberry and papyrus, not giant hard plants, like trees. They also used old fabric and rags. Hemp, cotton and linen (flax fiber) rags, basically old clothes, hammered to a pulp, were a staple of the paper trade for centuries. In the mid-1800’s the industrial revolution, with its powerful coal-fuelled steam engines, ushered in the capability of transforming whole trees, dense towers of cellulosic fiber, into soft pulp. Through humanity’s greatest 150 years of technological innovation, chemical and paper engineering focused bright minds on how to improve the tree pulping process. How to make cleaner, higher quality pulp from plants languished.


But there are always iconoclasts. Squirreled away in labs around the world, a few smart materials engineers have been busy inventing modern methods for pulping and processing plant fibres into everything from paper packaging to non-woven materials to yarns. Canopy has searched out ventures that have developed new pulping or next generation solution technologies or processes and that are ready to build mills and start producing alternatives to wood based products for pulp and paper and viscose. Some of these ventures are branches of major pulp conglomerates and some of them are new start-ups.


Several years ago, as part of its Second Harvest campaign, Canopy began asking corporate pulp and paper customers how much non-wood (i.e. agricultural fiber) pulp and paper they would buy if it were available on the market. One hundred and eighty companies (book, magazine and newspaper publishers and printers, merchants, distributors, mills and investment interests) voluntarily responded with details. Businesses participating in the survey represent over $100 billion in annual revenues.


Survey Results – Highlights

  • Participants identified 4 million tons of unmet demand for a range of printing and writing grade papers alone (i.e. we have not yet documented demand for non-wood packaging).
  • 80% of respondents expect demand for papers with agricultural residue to increase.
  • 84% would purchase agricultural residue papers if their price and quality needs were met.
  • 58% of respondents are open to supporting the development of non-wood paper markets with testing and trials and providing feedback.


Canopy knows that this is the tip of the iceberg. We are partnered with hundreds of customer companies who have explicit statements in their forest use policies indicating their interest in or preference for non-wood alternatives to paper and viscose and increasingly are looking to improve the environmental quality of their packaging, the fastest growing paper sector.


The revolution in pulp and paper is on its way because:

  • Markets are ready.
  • Multiple technologies now exist to replace unsustainable wood fiber pulps with more sustainable agricultural fibers from straw residues left after the food harvest or on-purpose crops grown on poor farm land, or with recycled fibers (e.g from recycled clothing).
  • Innovators like Re:newcell and Columbia Pulp are already at work.
  • Ventures are ready to scale-up production.
  • Understanding of how forests protect climate and biodiversity is at all-time high.


The only thing missing is investment commensurate with this great opportunity, and the urgency to make this happen.


Our next blog will dive into this issue: the role of investment in securing forest conservation by building agricultural fiber pulp manufacturing capacity, globally, as an alternative to sourcing unsustainable wood from primary forests to make pulp and paper.


By Valerie Langer, Fiber Solutions Specialist