When Acorn Designs started in 1981 the average American used about 400 pounds of paper each year. It was thought that computers would help to make us a "paperless" society. But the reverse has been true...in 2010 American paper use exceeded 750 pounds of paper per person. There is an ecological story behind every product we consume. Paper casts a large ecological shadow, from the gathering of the source material through its pulping, bleaching and processing.
Trees are the current source of fiber for the US paper industry. However there is a down side to using trees for paper. Trees require large amounts of energy to mechanically grind them into an appropriate size for pulping. Trees contain high levels of dark-colored lignins, adhesive chemicals which must be removed to make tree fibers usable. Chemical treatments, generally using harsh sulfur compounds, are applied to wood pulp in a "cooking" process that generally removes about 95% of the lignins. A final bleaching step is then applied to the pulp commonly using chlorine to whiten the fibers. In its interaction with wood fibers chlorine produces dioxins and other organochlorine by-products; dioxins are among the most toxic man-made substances ever produced.
Early papers were made from annual and perennial plants; the derivation of the word "paper" is from the aquatic "papyrus" plant of the Nile Valley which was used to make paper. Agricultural crops such as Kenaf and Hemp are much more ecologically soft sources of fiber for paper. These crops are not heavy feeders and can be grown without fertilizers. These plants also grow so rapidly that they crowd out weeds reducing or eliminating the need for herbicides. Kenaf and Hemp are naturally resistant to insects and diseases so few or no insecticides or fungicides are needed. Both Kenaf and Hemp produce 3 to 5 times more usable fiber/acre/year than tree fiber derived from a southern pine plantation (often considered the best wood fiber paper source). Once these crops are ready to harvest they require less energy and chemicals to process than tree-based fibers. Kenaf and Hemp fibers are naturally lighter than wood fibers, so bleaching can be minimized or eliminated. Given a level playing field, Kenaf and Hemp would be very cost-competitive with tree-based fibers. As mentioned in the opening text, the paper industry is dominated by just a few big players who control most of the production and largely determine what papers will be made available. Under these conditions it is difficult for such alternative fiber papers to find a toe-hold in the marketplace. Hemp also suffers from an image problem (which we will not discuss here). However hemp does make superior papers. With very long fiber lengths, papers made from hemp are extremely durable...our Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper! Kenaf started to get some steam behind itself as a paper source but is having a difficult time competing in the current marketplace.
We have had to make choices at Acorn about which papers we should print on. Recently it has made the most sense for us to print on high post-consumer content recycled papers that we source as locally as possible. Recycling of any resource is one of the best approaches to closing ecological loops. When we first started our business in 1981 US paper recycling rates were at a dismal 5%. With growing ecological awareness the paper recycling rates in the US reached a very impressive 63% in 2010! To help drive the recycling movement it is important to support products with recycled content...especially taking note of post-consumer content. Stay tuned for more updates on the ever changing world of eco-friendly papers!
Recycling of any resource is generally the most ecologically-friendly method of creating that resource, or perhaps we should say re-creating? In the case of paper, fiber derived from recycled paper sources can be made without harsh sulfur and chlorine treatments. Paper from recycled sources saves energy, chemical treatments and water use, not to mention saving trees. However, as paper fiber is recycled, fiber length gets shorter which creates a weaker paper. So the introduction of new fiber into a paper mix will always be required to some degree. Typical paper fibers can be recycled about 5 times before they get too short for acceptable paper. In an ideal recycling culture, papers would be made from perhaps 20-30% new fiber and 70-80% recycled fibers. We believe that new fiber sources should come from such sources as Kenaf.