A better way to make paper

It’s particularly frustrating that the sale of the Kimberly-Clark paper plant apparently fell through over environmental clean-up concerns, after the company spent $300 million since 1995 upgrading its wastewater and pulp-making systems. Now, the company plans to raze the waterfront site and sell it for development.

The Kimberly-Clark website has pages and pages devoted to explaining the company’s commitment to sustainable business practices worldwide. The company states, “The wood pulp we use is mainly sourced from forests in the U.S., Canada and Brazil. We buy more than 90 percent of our virgin fiber from external suppliers, and make the rest from purchased wood chips in our two pulp mills in Everett, Washington, U.S., and Tantanoola, Australia.”

(Well, make that just the Tantanoola pulp mill, now.)

The company met and surpassed a goal to use 40 percent of either recycled fiber or FSC-certified wood fiber in all North American tissue products by the end of 2011, by using 42.6 percent by the end of 2009.

While these steps are laudable, they realistically can’t sustain an industry that relies on trees to create products that will always be in demand.

Why do we cling to the notion that paper products must come from trees? At least two sustainable alternatives exist: Hemp and bamboo.

Industrial hemp, the blue-collar cousin to marijuana that has no psychoactive properties, has been grown for at least 12,000 years for fiber (textiles and paper) and food. (Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper, according to the North American Industrial Hemp Council.) It was grown commercially in the U.S. until the 1950s.

States are increasingly authorizing the cultivation of hemp, USA Today reported. From 1999 through last year, 17 states have enacted measures that would either permit controlled cultivation or authorize research. Hemp, as fiber or oilseed, is used to make thousands of products, including clothing and auto parts. Proponents say American farmers and industry are being shut out of a lucrative market as more than 30 countries, including Canada, grow hemp as an agricultural commodity.

(One of those countries is France, where Kimberly-Clark has a mill that produces hemp paper preferred for bibles because it lasts a very long time and doesn’t yellow, according to the hemp council.)

Importantly, hemp can be pulped using fewer chemicals than with wood. It doesn’t require chlorine bleach, which means no extremely toxic dioxin being dumped into streams.

If government and industry had their act together, Everett would be home to a thriving, hemp-based paper products mill, using plants grown by Washington farmers.

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