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Eco-Libris: Can Wheat Straw Replace Trees as a Source of Paper?

This post was originally posted on Eco-Libris blog on August 30.

Today I read a very interesting article at by Rod Edwards (“Paper from Wheat, not Wood“), who reports from Canada about exciting developments in what seems as a very eco-friendly alternative to trees as the source of paper: wheat.

No, it’s not the case of corn here where a food crop is transferred into (what some think is) an alternative “green” product. We’re talking here about pure agricultural waste – wheat straw.

The issue comes up following the printing of the Canadian National Geographic magazine’s June issue, which was printed using 20% wheat straw. The rest of the paper was made of 40% post-consumer recycled paper and 40% virgin paper.

Well, the wheat straw pulp was imported from China (because straw-pulping facilities have yet to be retrofitted in Canada), and that’s not that eco-friendly, but the point was definitely made in terms of feasibility and quality of this alternative. And the potential is huge, as we can learn from the Canadian printer Dollco, which was part of this effort and explains in its news release what could be the impact of using wheat straw for printing paper in Canada:

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 pulpโ€”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 yearโ€”without impacting food production or increasing energy inputs, while providing a new source of income for grain growers.

Sounds good to me. Kind of the win-win deal we always look for in our search for green alternatives to virgin paper made of trees. I always thought that agricultural waste or crops such as hemp (which personally is my favorite of all these options) can become eventually a significant part of the basket of green alternatives to the virgin-made paper. The main obstacle I guess it the cost.

I couldn’t find anything about it in Edwards’ article, but I my guesstimation is that the main obstacle in spreading this alternative is cost – wheat straw is probably more expensive than virgin paper. I guess this reality won’t significantly change until carbon dioxide will be taxed and then the pricing of wheat straw will be more competitive (if not even cheaper). This is the only way to make sure the June issue won’t remain a one-time green demonstration, and many publications will follow suit.

The wheat revolution can definitely start in Canada. This point was also emphasized by Nicole Rycroft, executive director at Markets Initiative, who said: “Canada is well positioned to become a leader in a brand new resource industry that is also an environmental solution for the twenty first century. Our world needs environmental solutions. Here’s one at the farm gate and we’ve identified hundreds of commercial paper consumers ready to buy it.”

Kudos to all the parties behind this initiative – Canadian Geographic magazine, Ottawa printer Dollco, the Alberta Research Council, and the environmental advocacy group Markets Initiative! We will keep following to learn how the wheat alternative will be further developed.

One comment
  1. Bobby B.

    “my guesstimation is that the main obstacle in spreading this alternative is cost – wheat straw is probably more expensive than virgin paper. I guess this reality wonโ€™t significantly change until carbon dioxide will be taxed and then the pricing of wheat straw will be more competitive (if not even cheaper).”

    Here we again see the word “tax” used in its most punitive sense. It seems that the green creedo should read, “If the alternative product can not compete within the realm of an existing business model, let us tax (punish) said existing business model into submission.” Why do you guys rarely suggest that alternatives stand on their own merits? And why do you stop short of asking other pertinent questions? You should be asking:

    1. What is the CO2 to oxygen exchange per acre for a wheat crop versus a new growth forest (fast growing young pine is still the preferred raw material for most paper products)?

    2. What are the current uses for wheat straw? It would be hard to imagine that farmers simply pile it up and burn it. It probably gets tilled under for use as composted fertilizer, which would reduce their dependency on factory fertilizers. Aren’t you guys anti-factory fertilizer? Or maybe it gets added to cattle feeds as a fibrous filler, or simply baled in hay?

    3. Is wheat paper as high a quality as tree-based paper, or does it provide merely an acceptable compromise? Does 100% wheat paper absorb inks as well as tree-based paper? Will it always require blending with the traditional raw materials for paper to maintain quality?

    Personally, I’d rather see wood made into fine furniture than paper but your suggestion to tax any existing business model into submission just further illuminates the socialist agenda of the greenolution. One rule still holds true, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” What ever happened to genuine ingenuity?

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