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Woodless paper interest grows

Posted on January 27, 2004

Alberta’s pulping sector is kick-starting a new trend that could see local farmers plant crops for paper production instead of food.

Interest in using crops such as flax and hemp as alternatives to wood in papermaking is high as rising global demand for paper clashes with limited forestry resources, said Wade Chute, manager of the pulp and paper division of the Alberta Research Council Inc.

“If I look at the total market pulp capacity of the people who have contacted me about this, I’ve got three of the top 10 players in the world,” Chute said.

“These aren’t small interests here.”

Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc. is experimenting with replacing a portion of its wood pulp with non-wood fibres grown in Alberta, the first Canadian pulp company to do so.

Al-Pac president Bill Hunter is so fired up about the use of non-wood fibres that he’s considering changing the company name to Alberta-Pacific Cellulose Industries.

“I truly feel that’s what our destiny will be,” he said.

“Preliminary indications say that from a paper characteristic, these fibres are going to do just fine,” Hunter said.

Non-wood fibres from linen flax, hemp and cereal straws produce high-quality papers suitable for use as currency, security papers, and even cigarette papers.

Under Al-Pac’s preliminary plan, non-wood fibres would be processed into pulp and exported for papermaking, either as a stand-alone product or blended in with the company’s aspen and poplar pulps. Farmers would be contracted to grow the crops.

Tapping into new export markets in densely populated, paper-hungry places such as India and China is part of the push toward non-wood fibres.

Urban sprawl and public perception are the real drivers, however.

Hunter anticipates that as more people move to cities, the public attitude toward natural forests will change, resulting in a clawback of those resources to wildlife preserves and recreation areas. This will further tighten already limited forest resources, creating the need for alternate sources of fibre.

This also explains why Hunter is not flinching at the estimated $40 million to $100 million in costs to build a specialized pulping mill — a decision he’ll make in two years’ time pending the outcome of some technological problems that need to be worked out.

The ARC is working on solving the technical issues, which mainly have to do with managing effluent, Chute said.

While Al-Pac’s international customer base appears to be receptive to experimenting with non-wood fibre, Alberta farmers will have to be equally co-operative to make it a go.

Given that overproduction of traditional crops is agriculture’s biggest problem, getting paid to switch to fibre crops would be wonderful, said farmer George Friesen.

The issue will be getting paid enough, and that means more than what the land makes currently producing livestock and crops, he said.

“It has to be worthwhile,” he said.

Chute said non-wood fibres have the potential to be worthwhile, in terms of capacity, anyway. He anticipates two major projects will be announced in Alberta in the next five years. Early numbers being tossed around are in the range of 1,000 tonnes of raw material daily — for a single mill. Most mills operate seven days a week, he added.

To put it in perspective, the average yield for Alberta’s 2003 tame hay crop was one tonne per acre. There are

50 million acres of farmland in Alberta.

David Spiess, a resource data engineer with Alberta Agriculture, said the province can handle the capacity in terms of acres.

What will be an issue, he said, is balancing the needs of industry with other traditional agricultural uses of straw.

Cattle feed and bedding requirements are estimated to account for approximately 3.5 million tonnes, or about 23 per cent, of cereal straw available for all potential uses in an average year, he said.

John Christensen, manager of BioProducts Alberta, argues opportunities presented by non-wood fibres will help diversify and sustain rural economies.

“Agriculture in Alberta and Western Canada has really been built around food and feed production,” he said.

“Companies like Al-Pac know they have limited resources in the forests, and if they are going to continue to run their mills full-time, they are going to need agricultural fibre.”

The other bonus for farmers is that the crops are easily grown. Linen flax grows basically the same as poor quality hay, requiring less care and attention than higher value cereal grains, he said.

Weathering, which ruins the value of traditional food crops, is beneficial to fibre crops. But time is the biggest bonus of using non-wood fibres, said Chute.

It takes 25 years to replace an Alberta poplar. This equates to 25 crop seasons, which is plenty of time for producers to determine which varieties yield the best fibre and, thus, make the best paper.

“It takes 25 years to figure that out with trees,” he said.

Copyright © 2004, Calgary Herald. All rights reserved.

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