From: Issue 46

Little startup on the prairie

25 November, 2013

Recycling helps, but growing demand for paper is still putting pressure on the world's shrinking stock of ancient forests. One Manitoba venture, whose investors include a Hollywood star and a co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, in out to show that high-quality, competitively priced paper made from agricultural waste is no longer pulp fiction.

Written by Tyler Hamilton, Editor-In-Chief

In June 2012, villagers in Central China found themselves choking on an unusually thick and mysterious haze. At the best of times air quality in the region is poor, but local authorities described it at the time as the worst case of “black carbon” pollution in a decade. Visibility was so low that some highways were forced to temporarily close.

Rumours were quick to spread. Had there been a large environmental accident?

The culprit, it turned out, was much less nefarious but no less concerning to those with no choice but to inhale. Wheat farmers, burdened with leftover straw after the seasonal harvest, were burning the stuff en masse by the roadside.

Few may realize it, but the practice of burning wheat straw and other crop residues is common throughout both the developing and developed worlds, including North America. Not only is it a major source of air pollution, it’s a massive waste of a valuable non-food resource in the eyes of environmentalists – not to mention eco-minded entrepreneurs like Jeff Golfman.

Sitting at a cafe in Toronto, Golfman matter-of-factly lays out the implications while picking apart a stale muffin. A ballooning global population, he explains, will mean rising worldwide demand for products traditionally made out of wood or wood fibre. Meeting that demand can’t be sustainable if it means harvesting forests that are already under severe pressure. “It’s inevitable that agricultural fibre, such as wheat straw, is going to have a greater role to play,” he says.

So inevitable has it been in Golfman’s mind that in the mid-1990s he embarked on a mission to produce high-quality paper made out of “ag waste.” He set the bar high: The end product had to be comparable in quality and cost to paper already made from recycled wood fibre, but the process and materials used would need to consume less energy, water and harmful chemicals. His paper would be complementary to products made from recycled wood and paper fibre, creating another economical alternative to using pulp from virgin trees.

True, non-tree paper already exists in the marketplace. Sheets made from sugarcane, bamboo, hemp straw and wheat straw have been produced in China, India and dozens of other countries for decades. In North America, niche paper products made out of linen, cotton and even elephant dung are available for purchase to anyone willing to pay the premium.

“There are over 200 pulp and paper mills in the world using some percentage and form of ag fibre, but most of them are doing a very small amount,” says Golfman, who has spent more than 15 years studying the market.

The number drops dramatically when stricter criteria around quality, price and environmental performance are applied. Many mills operate on coal power, and production processes still rely heavily on chlorine bleaching. The resulting paper typically contains 10 per cent or less agricultural fibre, which is blended with wood fibre that is often not certified as sustainable by bodies such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

It can hardly be considered beneficial for the environment, Golfman says. “When you look for that combination of high quality and good price and environmental integrity, you’ve only got a handful of people around the world attempting it.”

During the late 1990s, Woody Harrelson was certainly thinking about it.

Teenagers may know him as the booze-swilling character Haymitch in The Hunger Games movies, but to their parents he’s the dim-witted yet lovable bartender on the 1980s sitcom Cheers. After years of climbing bridges and lobbying U.S. congress in protest to the harvesting of old-growth forest, the Hollywood actor concluded that environmental activism, as necessary as it is, wasn’t getting the job done. He decided to focus more of his personal energy on finding market solutions to deforestation, one of them being the economical and sustainable production of paper using alternative fibres.