Kenaf – a treeless paper alternative

Over a third of municipal solid waste is paper and paper products – it’s the single largest type of waste. While reclamation and recycling of paper waste is getting better; in 2003 it was still a tad under half of the total amount of discarded paper products.

That’s not only a lot of wasted trees, but enormous amounts of energy (and chemicals) are required to turn a tree into paper. To manufacture paper, a tree that may take decades to grow is turned into wood pulp, but the pulp yield is only around 50 percent of the weight of the tree. We need to be looking more to treeless paper options.

Exciting earth friendly alternatives for paper are appearing on the horizon using fiber from plants such as hemp, bamboo, banana and in particular, kenaf.

Kenaf is a type of hibiscus, originating in Africa. It will thrive in relatively poor soils and  grows incredibly fast. An an acre of kenaf can produce up to 11 tons of fiber suitable for paper products in just one growing season. An acre of pine forest can take decades to reach harvesting stage and produce half the weight of usable fiber. Kenaf can also produce more paper fiber than hemp.

Kenaf is a hardy plant, needing little in the way of fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide. For bleaching, Hydrogen Peroxide is used which breaks down into water during the process – this is more environmentally friendly than the chemicals used by many pulp/paper mills.

From what I understand, Kenaf based paper is also superior to paper produced from trees in that it’s stronger, whiter and provides better ink adherence.

Unfortunately, kenaf paper (and all types of treeless paper) is currently difficult to get hold of with very few suppliers around. It’s also more expensive than tree-based paper; but start asking your office supplies store about it. The price will only drop if production is boosted and that will only happen if demand increases. If you’re a farmer with land to spare and looking for a new crop; growing kenaf may well be something to seriously consider!