Tree-free fibers: Could agro-waste divert a water crisis in the pulp and paper industry?
18 Jul 2022 --- As packaging manufacturers around the world rapidly move away from the use of virgin plastics, the demand for fiber-based solutions is booming. However, industry associations, producers and consumers could be seriously overlooking an environmental pitfall in the use of paper and pulp – water loss.
Currently, the pulp and paper industry is one of the heaviest water users within the industrial economy, requiring 54 cubic meters on average of water per metric ton of finished product. While certification schemes such as the Forest Stewardship Council seek to ensure sustainable water usage, only 17% of global supplies adhere to these standards.
Paul Foulkes-Arellano, a circularity educator at Circuthon Consulting, tells PackagingInsights that if left unattended, water use in the fiber industry could lead to a crisis in the near future. However, he says there is a simple solution: agro residues from the food industry.
“The major agro-wastes suitable for packaging are wheat stalk, barley stalk and bagasse. Hemp has excellent fiber length but is not available in the huge volumes of the first three. All four are waste products after the edible portion has been removed and make excellent pulp for paper making and molding,” he explains.
“A huge advantage of tree-free fiber is the level of water usage in processing – 70-99% less than with wood pulp, depending on the feedstock.”
Last year, Innova Market Insights labeled “Fiber-based Frenzy” a top packaging trend, noting that more stringent regulations like the EU Single Use Plastics Directive are driving the transition from single-use plastics to fiber-based alternatives.
According to the market researcher, a majority of global consumers perceive paper-based packaging as being “somewhat environmentally sustainable” (37%) (plastic packaging (31%)) or “very environmentally sustainable” (35%) (plastic packaging (15%)).
However, the move away from fossil fuel-based materials is inadvertently throwing up new environmental issues that are largely unseen by policymakers. Foulkes-Arellano says increased investments could push up the availability of agro-waste to reduce the waste associated with tree-based fibers.
“Governments can provide financial incentives for farmers and create a favorable environment for investment. The EU has been slow off the mark when it comes to non-tree fiber, and the UK government has slowed growth owing to ignorance and apathy,” he says.
Investment flow for water
Foulkes-Arellano continues that far more investment and policy changes will produce real change within industry.
“The principal challenge is an investment, as pulping and molding technology has progressed in leaps and bounds over the past 5 to 10 years. We are also beginning to see investment flowing into agri waste as brands understand the superior life cycle assessments.”
Moreover, the price of wood pulp is “skyrocketing,” he notes, making availability a serious issue.
“Equally challenging is education. The majority of those specifying packaging believe that non-tree doesn’t have sufficient scale, and until now, that has been true.”
This year, agricultural waste fiber technologists Papyrus Australia unveiled the “world’s first” fully banana fiber-based clamshell, produced in a molded fiber packaging facility in Sharqiah, Egypt.
By Louis Gore-Langton
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