Your Guide to Alternative Fiber Papers
*Special thanks to our intern, Noah Berg, for his research and writing assistance for this article.
Where does paper come from? If you asked anyone prior to 1844, the year Friedrich Gottlob Keller invented the wood pulp process, they would be more likely to say cotton than conifers. Why the switch? The abundance of old growth forests meant that harvesting wood was a cheap and readily available option to satisfy the growing demand for paper. After decades of mismanaged forestry, however, wood-based paper became controversial. In the 20th century, as millions of acres of Earth’s natural forests were being lost each year, paper companies shifted from natural forests to tree plantations. Not only did this allow them to keep up with increasing demand, it also protected forests from further destruction.
Around this time, experts also started researching alternative paper fibers—non-wood fibers used to make paper or packaging materials. Though, in actuality, many of these “new” fibers have been used in papermaking for thousands of years. In this post, we will examine the most readily available paper alternatives to conventional wood pulp: eucalyptus, bamboo, kenaf, and hemp. (Despite the fact that eucalyptus is a wood fiber, its growing popularity as a replacement for typical wood fibers, such as pines and conifers, means it is worthy of discussion.)
As you’ll read, each option has its pros and cons. Our goal is not to recommend a particular paper but to help you make an informed decision about the right type of paper for your company, project, goals and budget.
Types of Paper Fibers
When considering the environmental impact of any paper fiber, whether it be wood-pulp or one of the alternative fibers below, it’s important to consider the entire supply chain. Maturity of the infrastructure, energy efficiency (in both agriculture and manufacturing), transportation and importing, farming practices, speed of growth, and byproducts and emissions all factor into overall sustainability. It’s incredibly difficult to rank these fibers based on their environmental friendliness because there are so many factors to consider and very little research on many of the fibers. Each has strengths and weaknesses that depend on where they’re grown, how they’re harvested and processed, and how far they travel.
Conventional Wood Fibers
Interestingly, wood was not commonly used for paper until the 19th century. Suppliers were forced to innovate and make use of natural forests because plant fibers could no longer satisfy the growing demand for paper and wood was less expensive. Most of the wood used in papermaking consists of softwoods (like southern pine) and hardwoods (such as birch, aspen or oak). Since each type of wood fiber has its strengths and weaknesses, a combination of the two is necessary to create quality paper products.
Today, there are still advantages to tree fiber paper, whether it’s virgin fiber or recycled. For starters, most of our current infrastructure is designed to process wood fibers. This is reflected in the price of the final product. Additionally, these trees require less management than alternative fibers. At the same time, many of the old growth forests have been depleted in the last century and replacing them, compared to alternative fiber sources, is a very time-consuming process, with newly planted trees taking 20-80 years to reach maturity.
The four most common alternative fibers offer a solution, but there are trade-offs with each option.
Eucalyptus, a hardwood, contains fibers that are short and dense, relatively large amounts of cellulose and lower lignin levels compared to other hardwood fibers. This makes eucalyptus paper inherently whiter than paper from traditional hardwoods, which means it requires less chemical processing.
Harvesting eucalyptus wood is more sustainable than traditional wood because it grows back after being chopped down. Eucalyptus trees are very resilient and can grow in barren, dry areas, as well as overly wet conditions. There are over 600 different species of eucalyptus, each with varying properties, and combinations of different species can be used to produce a variety of different paper products.
Eucalyptus contains 2 million fibers per gram, which is 20 times more than the southern pine, one of the largest sources of softwood in the United States. The high density of fibers in eucalyptus trees produces more uniform, smooth and opaque paper, suitable for writing paper and ideal for high quality printing.
It’s worth noting, however, that some environmentalists have raised concerns about the water consumption of eucalyptus plants. In addition, eucalyptus trees contain an oil that is extremely flammable. While eucalyptus trees can be found in California, Hawaii and Arizona, it’s a non-native species and one many communities are trying to get rid of due to the fire hazard they pose. The vast majority of the world’s eucalyptus fibers for paper are produced in Brazil and Portugal.
Why you’d use it: Eucalyptus is the most cost-efficient alternative to traditional paper fiber. Its natural whiteness and opacity also require less chemical processing, making it more environmentally friendly from that perspective.
While hemp was a popular textile fiber dating back to ancient Mesopotamia (around 8,000 BC), the Chinese first started using hemp for papermaking in 150 BC. Similar to wood, industrial hemp fiber is collected from the inner bark of the hemp plant. From an environmental perspective, hemp absorbs more carbon dioxide than trees, requires less water than many other plant fibers, and produces byproducts that can be used to make a sustainable biofuel. It’s also incredibly fast-growing and produces a high yield per crop. Compared to wood pulp, hemp pulp contains much longer and stronger fibers, as well as a significantly lower amount of lignin. As a result, hemp paper is brighter and more durable, requiring less chemicals to process. In fact, hemp paper can be recycled five times more than wood paper before the fibers are destroyed.
Because hemp and marijuana are the same species (though hemp only contains trace amounts of THC), it was banned in the United States in 1937. Growing hemp was just recently legalized in the 2018 Farm Bill. As a result, there are very few American hemp processing plants, and the ones that do exist are small. The nascent infrastructure for farming and pulp production means that hemp requires more agricultural activity to produce, which leads to higher levels of CO2 emissions. Currently, this is the biggest environmental knock against hemp, but could be mitigated in the future with better, more efficient processes.
Another downside to hemp paper is its price. While it grows much faster than wood, hemp can only be harvested for paper once a year, so the cost of year-round storage increases its price. The insufficient and outdated production infrastructure also impacts the price. This combination of factors makes the price of hemp about six times higher than traditional fiber paper of the same quality.
Why you’d use it: Hemp is the strongest and brightest alternative paper fiber. It’s perfect for small batch printing where you’re looking to make a statement with your material choice (e.g., legal cannabis industry or CBD marketing).
Bamboo is a giant woody grass mostly commonly found in tropical and subtropical regions. Its fibers are similar in length to hardwoods but less coarse, and their flexibility and slenderness allow for soft and smooth paper. Low levels of lignin mean less chemicals are required during the bleaching process compared to wood fibers.
Bamboo is also one of the fastest growing plants in the world. It reaches maturity in three to five years and, similar to eucalyptus trees, does not require replanting after being harvested. It is a resilient plant capable of growing in nutrient depleted soil and on mountainsides, although it does require warmer and wetter climates. Like hemp, bamboo absorbs carbon dioxide faster than trees.
Unfortunately, bamboo is not the holy grail of alternative fibers. Bamboo is labeled an invasive species in the U.S., so the vast majority is imported from China and Thailand, which increases its carbon footprint. In addition, these countries aren’t known for their stellar track records on sustainable agriculture. And since bamboo is usually imported, it is typically more expensive than wood paper but cheaper than hemp paper.
Why you’d use it: Location matters when it comes to bamboo. If you operate in an area that produces the fiber, the environmental impacts are low. Bamboo fibers also require less chemical processing than traditional wood-pulp, so if that’s a primary concern for you, bamboo offers a good alternative.
Kenaf was once identified by the USDA as the most likely non-wood replacement for papermaking. It is native to east and central Africa and is known for its resilience and adaptability. In fact, several states in the southeastern, midwest and gulf coast regions of the United States have grown kenaf for the past four decades. Kenaf bark fibers are long and slender while the core fibers are shorter and thicker. This combination allows for a strong yet soft paper.
Kenaf is a fast-growing plant capable of reaching 12 to 18 feet in 150 days, and a single acre produces five to eight tons of plant material. This is three to five times the amount southern pines produce. It absorbs carbon dioxide very quickly, as well as nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil. Kenaf has a low lignin content, which means the chemical processes are cheaper and more environmentally friendly than traditional wood-fiber paper.
Kenaf is not perfect, however. From an environmental perspective, the amount of fertilizer and water used to grow kenaf is much higher than many of the other alternative fiber options. It also must be replanted each year, and year-round storage requires a significant amount of money and energy. Due to this, kenaf paper is about three times more expensive than conventional wood paper.
Why you’d use it: Compared to eucalyptus and bamboo, which are both imported and in some cases considered invasive species, kenaf can be and is produced in the United States. This ensures certain agricultural and production standards and cuts down on emissions from transportation. So while it may not be as opaque, bright, or cost-efficient as bamboo or eucalyptus, it tends to be more eco-friendly.
In the end, there is no clear choice when it comes to paper sources. Conventional wood forests (or tree plantations) offer better habitat value and require less management but are time consuming and must be carefully regulated. Eucalyptus is readily available, but the trees can be invasive and dangerous. Hemp and kenaf are great substitutes, but require storage and lack infrastructure, making them expensive to produce (and thus, expensive to purchase). Bamboo grows fast and requires little maintenance, but is hard to control and more expensive than wood paper.
Ultimately, the best choice for you and your company depends on your project, budget, priorities and brand values. The good news is that there are more options available today than ever before, with new materials, technologies and processes tested every day. With this research, you can make an informed decision that supports your company’s environmental sustainability goals as well as the bottom line.