The rising global demand for paper is forcing producers to look beyond trees to crops such as flax and hemp. The increase in forests set aside for wildlife preserves and recreation is also reducing the availability of wood pulp typically used in papermaking.
Experiments conducted by Alberta-Pacific Forests Industries Inc. (Al-Pac) of Canada indicate that nonwood fibers from linen flax, hemp, and cereal straws are capable of producing high quality papers that are sought after in both India and China. Full production would require the company to build a specialized pulping mill with costs ranging from $40 million to as much as $100 million. The apparent size and strength of the export market makes such an investment potentially worthwhile, according to company executives. At the moment, technical problems managing the effluent are still being resolved.
The next step for Al-Pac will be encouraging Alberta farmers to switch from agricultural crops to fiber crops. With 50 million acres of farmland, Alberta has enough space to grow the fiber crops, but the question is whether it would be profitable for farmers to switch from livestock and crops to fiber production. One advantage for farmers is that crops such as linen flax require less care and attention than cereal grains. Furthermore, weather extremes that can ruin traditional food crops are beneficial to fiber crops.
In any case, before proceeding with the project, Al-Pac will need guaranteed contracts with farmers to supply the 1,000 tons of raw material needed daily for a single mill. But time is on their side. As one executive pointed out, it takes 25 years to replace a crop of poplar trees, but only one year to grow untold acres of flax.