Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Sustainable Design, Consumer Behavior Change Key to Moving Away from Wood-Based Paper, Packaging

Jeff Mendelsohn, moderator and founder of New Leaf Paper, opened up Tuesday’s SB ‘15 San Diego panel about the use of non-wood fiber with two questions that — from a consumer’s perspective — are questions we all should embrace and act on, now:

  • Why haven’t more agricultural raw materials (i.e. wheat straw) been used for paper?
  • How do we move away from cutting down trees?

Asking questions from the position of “why” helps us to create a shared purpose (i.e. Simon Sinek) and empowers us to drive large-scale changes that matter. During Mendelsohn’s introduction, he reminded us that “paper decisions made today will determine mill design tomorrow.”

Other experts included: Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of Canopy; Keanon Swan, Strategic Partner Relationships and Postal Alliances for Sprint; Iris Schumacher, North America Sustainability Marketing Leader at Kimberly-Clark; and Mark Lewis, Chief Technology Officer at Sustainable Fiber Technology.

The session focused on how to transform supply chains to produce paper and packaging products that will eliminate associated environmental problems, provide measurable business value today and in the future, and be embraced by consumers. NGOs, suppliers and customer companies all have critical and influential roles to accomplish large-scale sustainable design that will address systemic changes to create new, long-term value.

One solution discussed at length is the use of wheat straw and other rapidly renewable crops. Swan said, “we’re on the path to wheat straw — it’s all about making these kinds of things work in a legacy environment.” Sprint’s ecoEnvelope is an example of its success in starting down the alternative path a few years ago.

Schumacher touched on Kimberly-Clark’s recent introduction of GreenHarvest Products, making “Kimberly-Clark Professional the first major towel and tissue manufacturer to introduce products, including Kleenex and Scott brands, made with fiber from rapidly renewable crops rather than trees.”

The Time is Now

According to Rycroft, it’s time to use more non-wood fibers for paper products and packaging. “It’s 2015 and we’re still mowing down endangered forest to provide the fiber for paper, packaging and rayon clothing,” she said. “We can save 250 million trees in North America every year by displacing virgin wood pulp with eco friendly non-wood pulp fibers from wheat straw and other agricultural straws. It’s good for forests, for the climate, for endangered Woodland Caribou and Orangutans, and for environmentally thoughtful businesses.”

Rycroft also asserted the importance of smarter design and consumer use. She believes, “we can address significant environmental challenges by manufacturing with raw materials that have a lighter footprint and help keep forests standing. But the first order of environmental business is to avoid unnecessary consumption of the planet’s resources by designing products that last and that can be fully recycled when their time is up.”

Tips for Large-Scale Sustainable Design and Changing Consumer Behaviors

As Schumacher said, “we need to shift consumer behaviors — changing behaviors and perceptions about these products is key.” Kimberly-Clark’s approach for alternative non-tree fibers includes:

  • Committing to reducing pressure on natural forests
  • Reducing reliance on recycled fiber
  • Increasing use of digital tools for long-term control of increasingly volatile costs

Wheat Straw’s Environmental Impact

Lewis believes wheat straw is a powerful resource if used properly. However, according to his research, approximately 1 millions tons of wheat straw are burned every year in Washington State, releasing 45,000 tons of ash, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and particles into the air. Why? It boils down to supply chain inefficiencies and/or manufacturing infrastructure currently not in place. This will change.

We can all influence the increased use of non-wood fibers for paper products and packaging. Large-scale sustainable design across supply chains — combined with more consumer awareness and behavior changes — will help make a measurable impact.

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