Woody Harrelson Says Making Paper from Trees Is ‘Barbaric’ — Is It?
In the pulp and paper industry there appears to be a renewed interest in “alternative fibers” for use in paper.
February 4 2013
by Laura M. Thompson, PhD
In the pulp and paper industry there appears to be a renewed interest
in “alternative fibers” for use in paper. One recent article on this
subject included a photo of Woody Harrelson (actor) with a caption that proclaimed “making paper from trees is barbaric.”
With respect to Mr. Harrelson, I believe he has either been misquoted
or is misinformed. To help advance this dialog I want to first clarify
The term “tree free” paper is used for two different categories of products: synthetic “papers” and real papers made from sources other than trees.
On the one hand we have synthetic materials that are not made of
fibers at all. They are printing substrates that look like paper – they
are thin and white. And in some ways act like paper – they are
flexible and you can print on them. But in most cases this group of
products is actually pigmented polymer films or non-woven materials. In
other words, they are not paper at all – they are made of plastic (the
vast majority of which is derived from fossil fuels). In some
applications (e.g. waterproof maps or outdoor signage) these might be
the ideal substrates, but to call them paper products is somewhat
confusing to say the least.
Beyond the synthetics, there are fibers not derived from trees that
can be used to make paper. Generally speaking the alternative fiber
category includes sources that are grown for fiber (like cotton or
bamboo). There are also tree free sources that are derived as
by-products from other processes – typically agricultural residues. For
example bagasse is a by-product of sugar cane processing – and Mr.
Harrelson’s passion reportedly lies in pursuing paper that is “currently made in India with 80 per cent waste wheat straw and 20 per cent wood fibers”.
In both cases – synthetics and alternative fibers – they are indeed
“tree free” products, but I have yet to see any evidence that these
products may have any environmental benefits over using wood. On the
contrary – the evidence I have seen leads me to conclude quite the
There are many arguments to be made about the values and benefits of
sustainably managed forests. If anyone has Mr. Harrelson’s contact
information, please send him a link to our eQ Journal Volume 4. And I would be delighted to speak to him about efforts aimed at salvaging wood
after a major wind event in the Lake States. Of course, beyond the
forest, one must take a look at the environmental impacts associated
with the manufacturing process.
The crux of the challenge faced by the paper industry is to develop a
pulping process that can compete both economically and environmentally
with wood pulping. This is a significant challenge that has been
investigated for many, many years. Thus far, we have yet to find that
magic bullet. With wood, we have a process where the chemicals are used
and then recaptured, reprocessed and reused. Essentially a chemical recycling process within our pulp mills which creates advantages both environmentally and economically.
But with non-wood fibers, because of the composition of reedy plants
the chemical recovery process cannot be closed the same way. It is
possible to make pulp from these sources, but the environmental impact
It is not just industry experts that understand this challenge. The
Chinese government has had a concerted effort underway for several years
to close down mills that are not meeting environmental restrictions.
Between 2005-2009 they established a modernization program that reportedly eliminated nearly 7 million tons/yr of pulp and paper capacity. Over half of these closures (measured
in terms of volume) were targeted at non-wood pulp and paper mills.
China’s strategy aims to use more efficient wood based and recycled
Today, the vast majority of non-wood fiber is made in China and
India. And most of that fiber is consumed where it is produced. If a
North American mill wants to import non-wood fiber, bamboo and bagasse
sell for roughly twice the cost of market kraft pulp. Flax is about 6
times the cost. The availability of these sources is on the decline.
Again, with all due respect Mr. Harrelson, making paper from trees
is far from barbaric – it makes good sense both environmentally and
Laura M. Thompson, Phd, is director of sustainable development and technical marketing at Sappi Fine Paper North America.
She has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of New
Hampshire and an M.S. and PhD in Paper Science from the Institute of
Paper Science and Technology. Since 1995, she has held a variety of
positions within the paper industry including R&D, mill
environmental, product development for specialties and coated fine
paper, and, most recently, sustainability. Since joining Sappi in 2006,
Laura has quickly emerged as an industry leader in the field of
sustainable development. This is reposted from The
Environmental Quotient with permission from Sappi Fine Paper North
America. For more information, please visit Sappi’s eQ Microsite. You can also follow @eQLauraThompson on Twitter.