Going green by using kenaf instead of trees for paper

Here I go again with another follow-up column about being green. It all started with a light-hearted look at books with "green" themes.

Then I learned that local author Fran Stewart goes even greener by having her books printed on something called kenaf, an alternative to trees. And then people wrote asking why they'd never heard of kenaf and why we weren't using more of it.

That's hardly a question I could answer. So I turned to people I know who maybe could. Like my niece, Donna Ruder, a chemical engineer who works in consumer solutions for Meadwestvaco, a paper company.

"I don't know much about kenaf other than what I have read on the Internet. It looks like a promising alternative to the long fibers currently obtained from Southern Pine. Kenaf paper was first produced commercially in the U.S. in 1994, yet it still hasn't gotten a foothold other than in niche markets," Donna said.

This still didn't answer my question, so I asked my friend John Yale, a chemical engineer with the Harris Group Inc., an engineering firm that does heavy industrial design in the pulp and paper industry. Being on the production end, maybe he'd know more.

"A lot of tree-hugging people are asking why we're not doing this. People think there are conspiracies out there against doing things differently than we currently do. But it all comes down to making money," John said.

"Kenaf grows 14 feet tall in thin straight stalks. You can grow six tons of kenaf per acre, but you can't be sure if it is all going to be usable," he said. "Imagine the labor involved in cutting, baling, bundling and loading these stalks onto a truck. Then consider that one 20-year-old pine tree weighs about one ton. Cutting down six trees takes only a fraction of the time and a fraction of the space on a truck. Then it takes just as much fuel to haul a truckload of kenaf as it does a truckload of trees. If people could be making money by using kenaf, they'd be doing it."

John went on to suggest that growing kenaf right next to processing plants could make it more profitable. Also, if someone could invent a machine similar to a cotton gin that would compress the fiber right in the fields, that would make kenaf more economical to transport.

Donna added, "The paper industry is like a large ocean liner, and it will probably take it a while to implement any significant change in direction."

This made me think about the current focus in education. Kids today know they are preparing for jobs that don't even exist yet. Maybe in the near future, a Gwinnett County engineer-in-the-making will have his or her ship come in with a profitable way to use kenaf.

And I hope I'm still around to write a follow-up column about it.

Susan Larson is a Lilburn resident. E-mail her at susanlarson4@yahoo.com.