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Paper without trees

Posted on March 1, 1996

Paper doesn’t grow on trees, according to activist-businessman Paul Stanford. The founder of Tree-Free Ecopaper prefers making paper for printing and writing from high-fiber weeds.

Plants such as hemp produce more usable fiber per acre than trees and are naturally pest-resistant. Hemp paper is easily bleached with peroxide instead of chlorine. And because it’s acid-free, the paper doesn’t yellow or crumble for hundreds of years.

Based in Portland, Oregon, Tree-Free has imported Chinese paper made from hemp and cereal straw since 1992. Last spring, the company began producing its own hemp-based paper, the first made in the United States since World War II, at a Massachusetts mill.

Hemp paper has a long history in this country; George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were hemp farmers. But because hemp can be bred for drug use, the United States outlawed its cultivation in 1937. That forces Tree-Free to import its raw materials.

The ban has kept hemp prices artificially high, Stanford says. But the price gap is narrowing. The cost of the cheapest grades of wood-pulp paper has doubled in the past year, and the price of hemp. based paper is now within 10 percent that of recycled wood-pulp paper.

Tree Free has sold 700 tons of its paper to date, but wood-pulp mills produce many times that in a day. Stanford’s closest competitor, Trailblazer Visionpaper of Albuquerque, New Mexico, sells paper made from kenaf fiber, which offers many of the same benefits as hemp. A hibiscus plant from Africa, kenaf is grown in the southern United States.

University researchers are also experimenting with paper made from chitin and kudzu. Chitin is a waste product of seafood processing, and kudzu is a quick-growing vine that is already crowding out native plants throughout the South.

Copyright © 1996, Popular Science. All rights reserved.