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Alternative fiber sources for newsprint

Posted on January 20, 1996

After seeing the price of their principal raw material double in the space of two years, it’s no surprise that newspapers are paying attention if not yet money, to businesses that hope to compete with their traditional suppliers of newsprint.

Rather than finding fiber in forests, sawmiil waste or recycling depots, these enterprises exploit smaller, faster-growing plants as a source for a suitable furnish. For their part, newspapers hope an alternative fiber supply will create competition that will, at the least, stabilize newsprint prices.

Through 1998, according to the American Forest & Paper Association, no capacity growth is expected for North American newsprint — newspapers’ second-biggest budget item after payroll. Prices already have soared from the record-low discounting of the early 1990s, when newspapers were in their worst recession in 50 years, to current levels that, in uninflated dollars, equal or exceed the historic highs of the late 1980s.

Purveyors of nonwood pulps aim to produce newsprint with the required strength and optical properties from the fibers of profitably cultivated and reasonably priced plants that can be harvested in months, instead of the years required for trees.

The endeavor is not new. Newsprint has been made from sugar cane waste, or bagasse. And newsprint made from kenaf, a variety of hibiscus, ran and printed successfully in trials conducted several years after the American Newspaper Publishers Association (now the Newspaper Association of America) sponsored research on the subject.

Sugar cane, however, is not a major North American crop. Nevertheless, two states where sugar cane is grown — that have relatively inexpensive natural gas for fuel and in which paper is already being made — could economically add bagasse pulping to existing pulp mills, according to Joseph E. Atchison, a retired manager with paper and mill construction companies.

Head of the pulp and paper branch of the Marshall Plan early in his career, the Larchmont, N.Y.-based consultant with a lifelong specialty in nonwood papermaking fibers, said at last fall’s Pulp Group seminar of the American Forest & Paper Association that the cost of depithed bagasse at sugar mills “would be less than $40 per bone-dry ton in Louisiana and Texas.

Among other applications, he said “chemi-mechanical bagasse pulp could supplement mechanical wood pulp for newsprint (The text was published with useful charts on markets and materials in last July’s Pulp & Paper.)

Kenaf, while it might be grown over a larger area than sugar cane, suffered a major setback after its last production trials, when the price of conventional wood-fiber newsprint fell to loss-making levels. Still, Atchison said kenaf, the 2.5mm fibers that are “comparable to the softwoods” now used for newsprint, is a good fiber with reasonable projected large-scale production costs.

Committed Customers

In 1977, the Peoria, Ill., Journal Star became the first newspaper to print on kenaf newsprint — supplied by a U.S. Department of Agriculture research center. The same year, Donald N. Soldwedel, president of Yuma, Ariz.-based Western Newspapers Inc., began the ANPA Newsprint Committee’s examination of kenaf. He has remained the plant’s champion ever since.

Kenaf International, a McAllen, Texas-based company formed by a Bakersfield Californian executive with a background in agricultural and two others with similar backgrounds, as well as the support of a Canadian newsprint manufacturer, laid plans in the 1980s for kenaf cultivation in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and a nearby pulp and paper mill in Raymondville, Texas. Copies of the Californian printed on kenaf newspaper seemed to prove the fiber’s worth.

The slow-going project seemed about to revive in 1990 when the recession killed demand for newsprint, and the ensuing oversupply pushed prices down to bargain-basement levels. The abundant, low-cost, wood-fiber newsprint forced the Canadian papermaking partner to withdraw from the project and KI to look elsewhere for customers. (Among a variety of other applications, Soldwedel cited moldable kenaf mats, from which can be pressed various car parts — door panels, even dashboards. The first such components, he said, will appear in a 197 European model, and two U.S. automakers are expected to follow suit for 1998.)

Two of KI’s three principals also left the firm. Former general manager Charles S. Taylor and his wife, Delphine, remain. Long past proving kenaf’s suitability, however, this time around, KI has more than the interest of a handful of papers. It has purchasing commitments for the proposed mill’s entire capacity of 75,000 tons per year for 10 years from 10 newspaper companies representing 28 papers in Texas, one in Louisiana and another in Florida.

“That gives us an adequate cash now to be able to pay off a modest-sized mill,” said Soldwedel.

He added, however, that “we don’t have all the financial matters signed off yet Until those matters are wrapped up, no timetable can be set for building the mill and making newsprint.

Soldwedel said he hopes to make the first delivery in 1988. KI is now shopping for a mothballed paper machine. Buying a decommissioned machine for newsprint instead of ordering a new one, said Soldwedel, can shave a year off the project’s time to start up.

The newspaper companies, said Soldwedel, were “told… that they should expect to pay whatever the market price is at the time At $800 per metric ton, that equals a commitment to $600 million over those 10 years.

Kenaf possesses several natural advantages over wood pulp. The 14-foot-high plant’s rapid growth permits two harvests per year in some areas. Comparatively soft and fibrous, kenaf requires less energy to pulp than does wood. Kenaf fibers can make strong paper. The 2.5mm outer fibers are comparable in length to those in pulped softwood. The compressible, flexible shorter core fibers, comparable to the shortest fibers from leafy trees, also add strength.

Owing to the absence of lignin, which cements the fibers in wood, kenaf also is naturally bright. It requires neither chemical delignification nor peroxide bleaching, and kenaf newsprint does not yellow with age and exposure to light.

Though smaller than the 235,00a ton-per-year mill planned in the late 1980s, the current project encompasses not only pulping and papermaking, but also collection and deinking of old newspapers.

Recognizing the recycled-content requirements for newsprint in numerous states, KI’s newsprint will be an as-yet-unspecified mix of kenaf fiber and recycled fiber.

Soldwedel said the company hopes to collect most of the old newspapers it deinks from within the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Raymondville is a half hour west of the Gulf of Mexico, and about an hour’s drive north of McAllen and Brownsville.

Multigrain Newsprint

Another alternative source of pulp is not planted for the purpose. As. natural byproducts of the cultivation of grains, production of cereal straws is already paid for in the sale of those grains. And pulping the straws may offer a profitable alternative to selling the stalks for livestock bedding, plowing them under or just burning them as waste.

Like the commercial quantities of newsprint Kenaf International intends to manufacture, the first batches of straw-based newsprint that Canada’s Arbokem Inc. hopes to field test will be a mix of virgin vegetable fiber and recycled fiber from old newspapers.

“The reason,” said Al Wong, president of the Vancouver-based firm,”. .. is that it’s pretty hard to overturn the legislation that’s in place in many states, in particular, California.”

By early March, as many as five Golden State dailies may test newsprint consisting of 60% agricultural pulp and 40% recycled fiber.

Wong has been negotiating with two western and two eastern newsprint producers that had been evaluating his firm’s new pulp.

“One problem… is that people might look at us as a threat… ,” he said. “On the other hand, maybe they see the light and they say maybe it’s time to get on board.”

Shortly after New Year’s, Wong said he hoped “to have the paper made some time during February.”

After shipping newsprint next month, Wong is looking forward to “extensive” pressroom trials at McClatchy Newspaper’s Sacramento Bee, New York Times Co.’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Santa Barbara News-Press and, possibly, Knight-Ridder’s San Jose Mercury News and Times Mirror’s Los Angeles Times. (Wong said Arbokem also will produce 60/40 Agri-Pulp directory paper for Pacific Bell, expected to sign up Nynex this month, and has Bell Atlantic interested in the product.)

The Bee is expecting to receive 10 to 20 rolls of the new newsprint, on which, it will print-its advance sections, according to Ray Steele, McClatchy Newspapers’ community publications director, who also is responsible for buying all newsprint for the group.

If the first runs are satisfactory, “we’ll probably try it in other places,” said Steele, who could not say how much testing will eventually be performed. “Obviously, if it works on our offset presses,” he added, “we’ll try it on our flexo presses” in Modesto and Fresno. Newsprint in the tests probably will be a “multigrain” product made from pulped wheat straw and another residue fiber, said Wong, who singled out oat for its very long, strong fiber. “We might want to make a blend of oat straw and wheat straw in our initial batch,” he said.

“My forecast,” Wong continued, “is that rice will make a better printing paper than wheat because rice straw has very slim fiber similar to eucalyptus in dimensions” but less expensive than importing Brazilian eucalyptus pulp (E&P, April 15, 1989, p. 35).

Because it must be shipped hundreds of miles to Arbokem, rice straw will not be used in the first round of tests, said Wong. In contrast, wheat and oat are grown in the Pacific Northwest and their straw requires only local transport to Arbokem.

Still, even beyond its physical properties, pulped rice straw may be more valuable to newspapers in parts of California, where it would add to the economy and subtract from the pollution. The country’s second-largest rice-growing state, said Wong, has a “big air pollution problem” from the annual burning of 1.5 million tons of rice straw in the Sacramento Valley.

Up In Smoke

Wong sees money and newsprint going up in smoke.

“A million and a half tons of rice straw,” he said, “can theoretically make about three-quarters of a million tons of pulp. And if you blend that with waste paper, you get back to about a million and a half tons of newsprint, which is a big chunk of the paper requirement in California from the newsprint mills.”

In combination with deinked ONP fiber, such newsprint would be doubly attractive — whether from an economic or environmental standpoint. Furthermore, Wong points out that effluent from his potassium-based pulping could be reused as farm fertilizer.

Owing to wheat straw’s high burst and tensile strengths, said Wong, its “combination with wood or kenaf TMP/CTMP could provide the balance tear strength, without the use of the more-expensive softwood kraft pulp.”

At the same time, wheat straw fiber’s shorter, slimmer dimensions, he said, would improve the opacity and smoothness of the finished newsprint. The charts on p. 24 compare burst and tensile tear properties of newsprint from various pulps.(The values shown for red fescue, a commercial perennial seed grass grown in the West, put it “in a class by itself,” according to Wong. He said a separate Arbokem study found that its pulp’s strength profile “virtually duplicates that of a blend of 20% softwood kraft pulp and 80% hardwood kraft pulp.”)

Wong expects the manufacturing cost for Agri-Pulp newsprint to be lower than that for wood-fiber newsprint because cereal grasses constitute a readily available “surplus material” from grain cultivation, are cheaper than trees and require less power to pulp than wood.

Nevertheless, Wong stressed that market forces, not manufacturing costs, will determine the price of his Agri-Pulp newsprint. Expectations that Agri-Pulp newsprint may cost less than wood pulp newsprint are “unrealistic,” according to Wong.

McClatchy’s Steele noted that like almost all other commodities, papermaking fiber sources — wood chips and old newspapers — are subject to the supply-and-demand swings of the market. If Agri-Pulp newsprint works, Arbokem may be able to introduce another fiber source and steady its cost.

“If you can maintain a constant cost in your fiber supply, then maybe you can maintain a little more constant cost in the price of newsprint,” said Steele.

As for Wong’s venture and its impact on newspapers, Steele added: “If he can get raw materials as cheaply as he thinks he can get them, he may have some very competitively priced newsprint.”

For farmers who now sell straw at $10 per ton for animal bedding, Wong said, “If you pay the guy 40 bucks, he’s going to keep at least 15 to 20 dollars in his pocket.”

In contrast, wood chips are priced at $100 per bone-dry metric ton. In Wong’s comparison of straw’s low price and low pulp yield with wood’s higher price and higher pulp yield, the former comes in at $58 per ton, the latter at $105 per ton.

North America annually produces approximately 200 million tons of fibrous crop waste, according to fiber expert Atchison, from which 100 to 120 million tons of papermaking pulp can be produced, which Wong compares with the 88 million tons of North American wood pulp production estimated for 1993 by the Canadian Pulp & Paper Association.

Wong said straw saves on power costs because it is “a lot easier to process than wood” owing to its “fairly open structure.”

Some version of chemithermomechanical pulping likely will be used — a “semi-chemical treatment rather than a strictly mechanical process,” said Wong.

“Brute-force TMP takes a lot of power,” he said, and “these agricultural fibers… are already fairly short fibers and you don’t want to just grind them up.”

Wong said he intends to treat the straws “lightly with chemicals and then get the brightness into the right range.”

While acknowledging that such processing can ordinarily diminish a sheet’s opacity, he noted that certain straws’ very slim and short fibers produce the desired opacity. As a result, Wong said he is more concerned with “protecting the fiber and brightness.”

Excellent, Expensive Cannabis

With 20mm outer fibers and 0.6mm core fibers, the long and the short of hemp, according to Atchison, is that it is an “excellent papermaking material, but if you don’t have a use for that core material, it’s so damn expensive you can only use it for very high-priced products.”

Only fibers from stripped flax and cotton stalks are longer than those from hemp’s long bast fiber, with which they compete for some paper products. Hemp fibers can be used to make higher-priced products as varied as cigarette and currency papers.

Within limits, shorter fibers produce better paper formation and longer fibers give greater strength, according to Atchison. But in the case of hemp, they are both too long and too short, as well as too expensive to separate, to serve as an economical furnish for newsprint.

Atchison rejects the arguments of hemp newsprint promoters J. Robert Israel (who, along with his Santa-Cruz-based International Resources of California is not listed by Pacific Bell) and former rock musician and fine art printer Graham Nash (E&P, July 8, p. 7; Sept. 30, p. 12C).

Calling marijuana lobbyists’ claims “irresponsible” and “completely unfounded” at last fall’s AF&PA Pulp Group seminar, Atchison later said that “proponents of using it in the U.S., for the most part, are talking about using the whole stalk.”

“If you try to use a mixture of the two components, you have a terrible time,” told E&P.

But Atchison relented somewhat, allowing that if anyone could succeed in making hemp-based newsprint, it would be Hobart-based Australian Newsprint Mills Ltd., which he recalled was the “first to use eucalyptus for mechanical pulp.”

Indeed, Australia’s biggest newsprint supplier last year pulped locally grown hemp. The varieties of cannabis vulgaris cultivated for pulp in Tasmania and under study elsewhere in Australia (E&P, June 24, p. 26) contains very little of the psychoactive compound found in marijuana.

In a telephone interview, ANM technical manager Len Johnson partly confirmed and partly refuted Atchison’s position. “It just looks pohibitively expensive,” he said.

Nevertheless, Johnson said that in laboratory experiments “we have confirmed that mechanical pulping gives rise to a useful pulp using the whole stem of hemp.”

At the commercial production and marketing level, however, Johnson said hemp pulp “competes head on” with TMP softwoods. “It’s a direct hit,” he said, on that pulp and on recycled fiber.

Johnson said he was still “keeping an open mind” about pulping hemp for newsprint, hoping that the process can be achieved at a lower cost. Separated longer fibers cut to suitable length, he said, can be used to make stronger papers, even as a “reinforcement” for newsprint, where it could replace the 4% to 25% chemical pulp.

Describing the difficulties of dealing with hemp, Atchison said that like jute and other plants, it is traditionally retted, or soaked in ponds for a couple of weeks to separate its fibers by loosening and dissolving binders and other materials in the stalks. The material is then hand stripped, hung on lines to dry, then baled for shipment.

“That, of course, can only be done where you have almost no-cost labor,” he remarked. Atchison said that while there are mechanical separators, he thought none is used in most hemp-growing countries.

The natures of the unlike inner and outer fibers are obstacles to pulping the whole stalk. Atchison explained that chemical pulping of the shorter core fiber is thwarted by the fact that “it just won’t drain on a paper machine,” and the great length of the bast fiber can interfere with its mechanical pulping.

Johnson and Atchison pointed to mechanical problems in preventing the very long fibers from turning into “strings” and “ropes.”

But, noting that papermakers face the same problems with other fiber furnish, ANM’s technical manager said they are not insurmountable.

“Before it is refined,” said Johnson, a so-called chipper cuts the fiber down to size. “You’re looking for a fiber length of one to three millimeters,” he said.

Though Johnson called hemp’s perhectare yield “quite high using the whole material,” he said fractionating the stalks to subtract only the 25% that is the longer bast fiber makes cultivation costly without buyers for the remaining fiber. Like other waste fibers, Atchison said hemp’s core fibers could be used for animal bedding, made into packaging or added to potting soil.

For farmers, it amounts to insufficient productivity in terms of dollars per hectare per year, according to Johnson. Including irrigation costs, he said, “you’ll make more money growing potatoes on that same hectare.”

Australian studies on hemp pulp, continued into the new year, but looking back, David Evans of the Rural Industries Research & Development Corp. in Barton said papermakers’ response so far has been “lukewarm.”

Last year, ANM had five tons of hemp secured — one that it owned and another four it held for the grower. But shortly after New Year’s, Patsy Harmsen of the Tasmanian Hemp Co., Kingston, reported that, “We were refused our last license application… based on spurious bureaucratic criteria.”

The government, she said, cited THC’s inadequate seed-handling paperwork and site security — complaints she said were untrue.

Copyright © 1996, Editor & Publisher. All rights reserved.

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