(Reprinted from the Hemp Magazine, June, 1997)

The Alternative Fiber Pulp Mill

     Of course hindsight is easy. We can look back now at the practice of bloodletting as a medical procedure designed to help the patient, and wonder at the folly of it. A few hundred years from now, the world will remember the twentieth century as the century in which most of the earth’s resources were exhausted, especially oil and ancient forests. Yes, oil and trees are valuable resources, but if we just use them all up as fast as we can, it is nothing but a folly of waste and loss.

     I am a papermaker, making hand made sheets of paper one at a time at the vat in the traditional manner. I have been using hemp fiber for years now, including sources from China (clean bast fiber, the strong outer part of the stalk), Spain (partially processed bast pulp), and locally supplied whole stalk from farmers in Southern Humboldt and Northern Mendocino counties, California. I also use other traditional fine fibers such as flax and abaca (“Manila hemp”), and alternative fibers such as kenaf, which we get as cleaned bast fiber from plants grown in California.

     All of this is a long story, but to me the most important news is not how great hemp is for paper making (as it certainly is – the long, strong fibers contribute strength and durability to any other weaker pulp that it is mixed with), but how easy it is to make paper from just about anything at all. I use all kinds of weeds that grow wild on my land, and some of them are remarkably easy to use and make quite excellent paper, such as the common sow thistle (yellow flower, purplish green stem, and hollow core), and yellow dock, which I am trying to cultivate. Why is anyone cutting down our ancient forests to make pulp for junk mail paper when there is so much better and more suitable material already available for free?

     In California, it is the rice straw, which is burned off the fields by the millions of tons every single year. Elsewhere you may have wheat straw, sunflower stalks or prairie grass. The Spartina seaweed that plagues the oyster farmers off the North Coast is another one, perfectly suitable for paper.

     Of course, some fibers are really fine, like hemp, flax, abaca, and cotton, while other materials are fair to middling (wheat and rice straw), and will work fine in a blend with the stronger fibers, but a few are so poor that they are really not worth while using at all. An example of the latter category is wood. Can you imagine (you have to be a papermaker to appreciate this) stripping off some lovely kozo (bast fiber of the paper mulberry, a.k.a. Japanese “rice” paper), and then proceeding to toss the fiber aside so you can make paper out of the woody core? I have had a hard time trying to understand what is going on. It seems to me that it ought to be possible to set up a pulp mill that would use almost entirely recycled cellulose material that was otherwise not being utilized, and still come up with better paper than they are making out of wood.

     Historically, a paper mill has always been a recycling center, taking old sailcloth and rags, largely hemp, and turning it into fine paper. Today, the paper industry consists of an enormous volume of mostly junk paper. This huge flood of daily catalogs and grocery store advertisements is a very wasteful expenditure of industry from the making of the pulp in the first place, to the production of all that wastepaper, to the burying away in the landfills across the nation and the world. What a humiliating and senseless end to the ancient forest! It would be so much better if everyone involved in that whole enterprise were to spend their time cultivating the garden instead.

     But that is a separate issue. I propose the elimination of all bulk mail discounts of every kind. If every piece of advertisement had to pay first class rates to get into my box, then I might be willing to glance at it a moment as it drops to the “recycle” barrel. But since the volume of that entire paper storm is so huge, it just does not make sense to cut down all our trees to the total neglect of so many other alternatives.

     There is a better way, so let’s get down to business. Hemp paper is available now, but it is very expensive. If we have a better way, it must be cheaper, not more expensive. I don’t want to produce pure hemp paper. I want to set up a pilot project Alternative Fiber Pulp Mill right now and begin to blend available materials into pulp suitable for papermaking. We will contract arrangements with anyone who proposes to recycle to us their material, whether it be farm refuse, rag or cutting scraps, or other material. There will be a value to everything, sorted rag being worth more than unsorted rag, for instance, but in most cases the material will be donated originally, so the supplier may sell them to us very cheaply and still cover his cost of collection and delivery.

     This plan is ready to implement right now, hemp or no hemp. There are so many materials available so close to free that very little additional binder will be needed. This “additional binder” is the longer and stronger fibers of select material that will carry the weaker fibers in with the mix. Most agricultural waste material will be fairly poor in quality, and would make distinctly inferior paper if it were proposed and attempted to make paper from those materials alone. But just like a blend of cotton and polyester will present the surface quality of the cotton with the durability of the polyester, so a blend of hemp and agricultural waste can end up presenting characteristics which will make excellent paper with existing papermaking technology.

     No innovations are required on the papermaking side of the issue. 100% hemp pulp has commonly caused problems to paper mills, but I am much more interested in the low end of the market, where paper may get by with 15% hemp, 5% other strong fibers, and 80% “fibre du jour” from the local farm. This will cost us very little for materials, so we can sell pulp for little more than our production costs. We expect to produce a pulp with characteristics not very much different from what the industry is used to using.

     Even though I am a papermaker, I can see the hemp crop from the point of view of the farmer. It makes sense to grow it as a seed crop. If I ever get my permit to cultivate fiber hemp for my paper mill, however (if you are interested, read the latest news at my web site, www.tree.org, or, for greater illumination upon the subject, read The Castle, by Franz Kafka), of course I will grow for fiber, and I will use only the bast portion in my paper making efforts, but my papermaking goals are quite different from those of a commercial paper producer. I am trying to make the best paper I can. A commercial paper producer is market driven to produce paper as cheaply as possible.

     But even if the trees really were unlimited and “free,” (which is the only assumption under which the logging industry makes any sense, as if the trees behaved like the head of Hydra, and two full sized trees sprang forth whenever one were cut down), I still think I could make paper cheaper using “found” materials. Even the hemp that I would propose using (whole stalk, bast and core) would be a by-product of the hemp seed industry. It would be just an added bonus to the hemp farmer, to ensure the profitability of his fields.

     But if this is the plan, what if we still cannot grow hemp locally? One answer is that as soon as we have an operating mill capable of processing hemp stalk for paper pulp, economic considerations would ensure that the hemp would be grown. But in the meantime, we might have to boost the quality of our pulp by adding stronger fibers, cotton or flax or even imported hemp. The whole argument for the hemp crop is that as soon as it were to become available, we would switch to its use to strengthen our pulp since it would be more economical.

     So how come there is nothing but talk? Why isn’t it happening? Do we have a site yet, for our mill? No, we don’t; not yet. There are still a couple of obstacles: money and the cannabis laws. Let me address the latter issue first:

     To begin with, we must understand one thing: there is not, and never has been, any drug issue involved. It is simply a matter of economics, farming, and papermaking. Right now, there is enough market demand for hemp products to ensure a profitable crop for any farmer allowed to cultivate it. Farmers have always been in the forefront of any initiative to cultivate hemp, because they can recognize its potential to return a handsome profit.

     But if hemp is potentially such a profitable crop, why is there any objection to its cultivation? It looks like marijuana. That’s the end of the charges. Even so, it may still look like a real obstacle, but at least we can be clear that there is no other issue involved. The breeding of hemp strains has produced a number of specialized varieties with a number of benefits. There may be an improved yield and quality of fiber or seed produced, but the principle criterion for selection is low THC. It is possible to use varieties that produce no THC at all (.001%). But all of this seems like a useless and even distracting smoke screen, cooked up to enrich the seed cultivators, since native wild hemp plants typically produce plants whose THC content is pretty close to one half of one percent anyway. If you look at a graph of cannabis varieties and THC levels, you will see a very clear grouping into two quite distinct varieties. In the scientific literature, the dividing line is put at 1%, since that cut-off line very effectively includes just about every variety of hemp cultivated for fiber. That is, the third generation after planting your patented seed, the strain reverts not to a high THC producing “threat to the nation’s youth,” but to species fiber hemp, at half a percent THC.

     If anyone thinks they are going to get high by smoking fiber hemp, let them try it. If they manage to get any effects beyond a headache, I am sure it is no threat to anyone. Just be glad they are not drinking alcohol.

     The legal hurdles are clear: pass first in state legislatures, and finally in Congress, a bill defining “marijuana” as only referring to cannabis above 1% THC, and defining “hemp” as cannabis below 1% THC, in the female inflorescence. For reference, while cannabis varieties exceeding 1% THC are considered to be on the drug side of the line, in practice, most marijuana cultivated these days ranges from 10 to 15% THC, and no marijuana user would have any interest in fiber hemp.

     But the legal evolutions are inevitable. Sooner or later, the Marijuana Prohibition will be given up for all the same reasons as the failure of alcohol prohibition. If anyone believes marijuana to be bad for any reason, they are welcome to publish their findings. Education has played the key role in turning the tide away from tobacco smoking, and has probably limited the abuse of alcohol. Education is really the only acceptable way to deal with these substances. And, as to the legalizing of industrial hemp, if we manage to get a pulp mill on line ready to commence production before we are finally allowed to grow hemp, I will be quite surprised.

     That leaves the question of funding. Even a pilot project, smaller than optimized for full commercial scale, will cost a lot of money to set up. There are several new technologies out there that address the need for new pulping methods suited to the alternative materials we propose to use. There is the Krotov mill described on our web pages (www.tree.org), but there are other possibilities also, such as steam explosion and thermo-mechanical processes. Perhaps more than one of these will be utilized, as some materials may be more suited to one or another process.

     I have been trying to set up funding for the Krotov design for a couple of years but I guess I haven’t spoken to the right people. I have been approached by investment brokers that were confident of raising the funds, but it would cost me $20,000 for their services. But I don’t think I should have to go through all of that. Perhaps some one reading this article will know someone or some company that will want to turn $2 million into $600 million within five years (oh yes, and “save the world” into the bargain) and will get in touch with me right away.

     This is a project whose time has come today, and I want to see this project realized.

John Stahl

(Update: For the current status of this project, see the Progress Report.)


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