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Bamboo paper is not forest-friendly

Posted on July 1, 1998

As public interest in “tree-free” paper has grown, some companies within the pulp and paper industry have seized upon tropical bamboo as a “green” alternative to virgin wood fiber. But industrial use of tropical bamboo, combined with an escalating global paper demand, threatens what remains of the world’s last intact bamboo forests.

In 1996, several domestic paper makers — Fox River, Lyons Falls and Unicorp-Phoenix — began importing plantation-grown bamboo from Thailand’s & Paper Co. Soon thereafter, several bamboo papers became widely available, the most prominent of which were Fox River’s Rubicon and Unicorp Phoenix’s Impressions line of coated sheets.

In 1997, ReThink Paper issued a public alert urging consumers to avoid purchasing these papers after leaming that .the Phoenix operation had displaced local people, disturbed native ecosystems and was seriously polluting the surrounding watershed [Fall ’97 EIJ]. More fundamentally, the concept of shipping pulp halfway around the globe — particularly from ecologically sensitive regions like Southeast Asia — was not environmentally sound.

Following RTP’s critique, Lyons Falls stopped purchasing bamboo pulp, citing market volatility as the basis for its decision. At a meeting of the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry’s Nonwood Plant Fibers Committee last October, representatives of Fox River Paper Co. publicly pledged to secure a domestic source of nonwood pulp for its Rubicon line as soon as one became available.

Some companies, however, continue to promote bamboo as a bona fide environmental alternative to wood-based paper.

Around 30 companies with production volume ranging from 27,000 to 220,000 metric tons per year are listed in the 1998 International Pulp & Paper Directory as major producers of bamboo pulp and paper. Since there are no international standards, rules or certification mechanisms in place for bamboo, neither paper producers nor consumers “have any way of knowing whether the bamboo they purchase is coming from endangered ecosystems.”

Bamboo grows naturally in some of the most biologically-diverse and threatened forests in Southeast Asia, South and Central America, and the Caribbean. According to the World Wildlife Fund, key bamboo habitat in Asia is home to “around 100 mammal species, over 200 bird species, at least 20 reptiles, and at least 14 amphibians.”

Paper industry consultant Joseph Atchison estimates that global annual bamboo pulp capacity is now around 1.46 million metric tons, nearly 80 percent of which is centered in China and India.

Dr. Karl Bareis, coordinator of the International Bamboo Association, estimates that Asia’s remaining available bamboo reserves are now around 11.8 million acres. Were bamboo to become a high-demand fiber in the global marketplace, these critical areas would surely suffer.

According Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Magazine, “bamboo is being extracted from at least 60-70” of India’s protected forests. The fragile Nagarjunasagar Tiger Reserve suffers massive bamboo extraction for paper mills, a process that Sahgal says poses a severe threat to the internationally treasured animal.

An April 1998 article in Business Line happily noted that “the greatest [remaining] untapped bamboo forests are in Myanmar (Burma),” and lamented the fact that “presently only 20,000 tons of bamboo pulp are being made there annually.” Interest in bamboo for pulp and paper is also growing in the Western Hemisphere, where a major US paper manufacturer has reportedly begun hatching plans to exploit large natural reserves in the Caribbean.

Bamboo-based paper also perpetuates the wood-based paper status quo because — unlike perennial agricultural fibers — it can be chipped in existing wood-based mills. Existing pulp mills must replace their machinery to process agricultural residues, hemp or kenaf, so the continued use of bamboo only serves to discourage the conversion to nonwood paper technologies.

Meanwhile, more than 280 million tons of excess agricultural residues are produced annually just waiting to be harnessed, according to Maureen Smith, author of The US Paper Industry: An Argument for Restructuring. In Califomia, a pioneering paper company called Arbokem is proposing to collect and process rice straw residue from the state’s Central Valley farmers who face a phase-down of straw burning due to air pollution concerns.

In the Midwest, Heartland Fibers has secured funding for a 100,000-ton-per-year mill that will transform corn stalk residue from area farmers into chlorine-free, tree-free pulp. Heartland’s $150 million Nebraska plant will turn up to 1,400 dry tons of corn stover (corn plant stalks) into 400 tons of paper pulp each day. Two dozen paper companies have judged corn stover pulp is equal to or better than North American hardwood pulp. Because corn stover pulp can be bleached without using chlorine, the plant will not pour dioxins into the watershed. The plant should be operational by the end of 1999.

But consumers need not wait. There are nearly a dozen North American pulp and paper manufacturers that produce nonwood-based papers commercially (see resources list below), proving that paper need not come from forest ecosystems of any type — bamboo or otherwise.

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