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The Possibilities of Offshore Fiber
Only a couple of decades ago, so we are told by experienced Asia observers, the vast hinterlands of China were dotted with small pulp and paper mills that operated only a few months each year. Their raw material was agricultural crop residues such as wheat straw. They were terrible polluters and the authorities often shut them down. But they usually resumed operations as soon as the authorities had moved over the horizon.

Their pulp and paper products were of very poor quality, but they were better than none at all in a society emerging from pre-literacy. Local manufacturing ventures were also discovering a need for packaging materials.

In the two decades following the heyday of the Chinese mom-and-pop pulp and paper era, a majority of the new paper machines manufactured in the western world have gone to China. These machines have served to wipe out most--but not all--the small time operators.

But there are many Chinese papermakers who remember how to make pulp and paper from nonwood resources, including wheat straw, bamboo, giant cane (Arundo donax) and kenaf. All these raw materials are--or can be--plentiful and cheap. And these Chinese papermakers, well acquainted with pulping nonwood fibers, have gained access to the new, modern equipment that has poured into China. While the idea of pulping anything other than wood is foreign to most North Americans and Europeans, it is not so for many mill operators in Asia and South America.

It was not only for reasons of raw materials plenitude and economy that giant papermaker Kimberly-Clark recently announced a new line of tissue and towels that will incorporate wheat straw and bamboo fibers. K-C says its new "Green Harvest" multi-fold towels and toilet tissue will blend in 20% wheat straw fiber. Its Kleenex roll towels and bathroom tissue will use 20% bamboo fiber. The move to nonwood fiber can be seen as at least partly a marketing ploy. But, of course, K-C has mixed motives. Is nonwood fiber moving up into a resource of global importance?

The same things can be said of office supply giant Staples, which is selling "Step Forward" copy paper made of 80% wheat-straw and 20% Forest Stewardship Council® certified wood fiber. The promotional possibilities inherent in the Staples move is illustrated in the throw-away line, "Buying two boxes of Step Forward Paper instead of copy paper made from virgin forest fiber saves one tree."

It is hard to estimate the inventory of standing bamboo in the world, but we do know that at least 8 million hectares (almost 20 million acres) are under cultivation by Asian interests. As to an annual supply of wheat straw, estimates are that 222.3 million hectares (549 million acres) are under cultivation.

Time will tell whether a paradigm shift away from trees and toward nonwood fibers is actually under way--but all the elements are present.

Chuck Swann is the senior editor of Paperitalo Publications. He can be reached by email at chuck.swann@taii.com.
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