Glossy magazine wakes up on ‘wheat sheets’
For the first time in North America, a glossy magazine will be published on paper made from the pulp of wheat straw, a development advocates say could herald the birth of a new resource industry that would alleviate some of the pressure on Canadian forests.
The paper, known as the wheat sheet, is the product of more than 10 years of research by scientists at the Alberta Research Council. It’s made from 20-percent wheat straw and 40-percent recycled paper, and its creator says it rivals any glossy paper made primarily from virgin timber.
“I know this is going to sound somewhat anticlimactic, but it actually looks just the same as the other stuff, which is a really good thing from a publishing standpoint,” said Wade Chute, team leader for the project at the research council.
The paper was used to print the latest issue of Canadian Geographic, hitting newsstands today, part of a four-year collaboration with environmental group Markets Initiative, which was instrumental in the green printing of the Harry Potter books.
Nicole Rycroft, executive director of Markets Initiative, said the wheat sheet represents a great opportunity to turn agricultural waste products into an environmentally friendly paper. “We were looking for a creative way to alleviate the stress on Canadian forests,” she said.
Canada is the world’s largest producer of commercial pulp, but the industry has shown little interest in wheat straw, which is used primarily in China. In fact, the wheat straw pulp used to create the wheat sheet was imported from China because there is no facility in North America able to process wheat into pulp.
Ms. Rycroft said the 15 million tonnes of cereal waste Canadian agriculture creates annually could be used to make 7.5 million tonnes of pulp, equivalent to about 80 per cent of all the newsprint used in Canada in a given year.
The processing of wheat into pulp is also easier on the environment because it’s less energy intensive than wood processing and has about half the ecological footprint, Ms. Rycroft said.
The difficulty is that Canadian pulp processors don’t have the equipment to deal with wheat straw, and it would take an investment of $50-million to $200-million to upgrade an existing Canadian facility.
But despite the cost, Mr. Chute said, feasibility studies done at the Alberta Research Council showed such a business could be profitable.
“It takes very little energy to refine and it produces a very nice sheet, so where wheat straw has an opportunity in the marketplace is as a surface enhancement for commercial publication papers. It has the ability to grow the industry without consuming more wood, and it has the ability to use a little bit of extra straw that would otherwise be decomposed and issue greenhouse gases. From an environmental standpoint, it looks fairly good.”
Normand Lecours, vice-president of sales and marketing at Cascades Inc., said the forest-products company is looking closely at the wheat sheet. He said he believes it could appeal to large, environmentally conscious paper buyers, such as governments and others he classifies as “dark green” consumers. “My gut tells me there’s a market for it.”
Andy Haarsma, who runs a 2,000-hectare grain farm near Edmonton, said he would be excited about the possibility of finding a market for his wheat straw, which is left over after the grain is harvested. Normally the straw is used for animal bedding or spread onto fields, where it breaks down and becomes fertilizer.
“In the past, straw might have been considered a byproduct or a waste product and therefore undervalued,” Mr. Haarsma added.
He said he produces about a tonne of usable straw for every acre of wheat he plants. At the moment, that straw is worth about $50 a tonne, he said. A new market could create better prices for farmers.