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#1679: See Haiti reference at end (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>

                 Kenaf popular as non-wood alternative for paper

TOKYO, Jan. 3 (Kyodo) -- By: Noriko Sato Kenaf, the tall African plant 
that grows a pale yellow flower similar to the hibiscus, is becoming 
popular in Japan, touted as a source for paper pulp that is more  friendly
to the environment than wood. 
   Paper made from the plant's stalk fibers is now being increasingly used 
in products ranging from tissues to calendars. 
   Enthusiasts say kenaf is an ideal source for paper since the plant can 
reach a height of 3 or 4 meters in several months and absorbs more  carbon
dioxide than trees. 
   "When you use kenaf, you play a part in saving forests and preventing 
global warming," said Hiroshi Moriya, director of the Association of 
Non-Wood Paper Production set up in 1993. 
   Some people, however, voice skepticism about the kenaf boom. 
   "People don't seem to be aware that planting kenaf makes the soil 
barren," said Hiroshi Morishima, professor of design and architecture  at
Nagoya City University and an expert on making paper by hand from  natural
   This spring, McDonald's Co.(Japan) Ltd. began using paper with 20% 
kenaf content for wrapping its hamburgers at all its outlets, and is 
hoping to use kenaf paper cups by the end of next year. 
   "Kenaf is getting better known and we wanted to do something that was 
good for the environment and our image," a McDonald's spokesman said. 
   Moriya said his association also promotes the use of other materials 
such as bamboo and bagasse -- residual fibers of sugarcane -- but that 
public interest in kenaf has been the strongest. The association has  sold
40,000 packets of kenaf seeds in the last two years, he said. 
   Other kenaf groups that have formed across the country are also selling 
seeds and paper-making kits through the Internet to schools, companies  and
local communities which want to grow the plant and have a try at  making
paper themselves. 
   NEC Corp., a major computer maker, started growing kenaf five years ago 
on an experimental basis, and uses the pulp to make paper for its  in-house
reports. This year, the company called on all its group  companies to grow
the plant at vacant areas around factories. 
   "It's good that kenaf helps clean the air. Growing the plant also  helps
heighten our awareness about the environment," an NEC spokesman  said. 
   To find out about kenaf, including whether it actually has stronger 
carbon-dioxide absorbing properties than trees, the government launched  a
three-year research program on the plant this year. 
   "We hardly know anything about this plant. We need to know whether it 
really is as useful and good for the environment as is supposed," said 
Hidehiro Iino, who is in charge of crop research at the Agriculture, 
Forestry and Fisheries Ministry. 
   Studies will also be made to see if kenaf can be a profitable crop for 
Japanese farmers and whether commercial uses can be found, such as  using
the woven stalks for industrial material, Iino said. 
   Moriya said he doubts the viability of growing kenaf in Japan 
considering the scarceness of open, flat spaces that would allow for 
large-scale production. 
   "There isn't enough space in this country. It would be much more 
realistic to import it," he said, adding that Australia, India and 
Southeast Asia are ideal production sites. 
   Despite the interest, only about 15,000 tons of kenaf paper is produced 
in Japan. It is a minuscule proportion of the 30 million tons of paper 
produced annually in this country, of which 99.6 % is made from wood  pulp,
Moriya said. 
   "Our target for the time being is to hike kenaf production to at least 
10% of total paper production," he said, adding that his association  hopes
to soon set up a joint venture abroad with Japanese companies to  make
kenaf pulp and paper products. 
   Paper manufacturers generally do not have plans to boost production of 
kenaf paper, said Hideaki Ueo, general manager of fine paper at the  sales
division of Nippon Paper Industries Co., which produces about 1,  500 tons
of kenaf paper a year. 
   Unless consumer demand rises significantly, prices of kenaf paper are 
likely to stay about 20% higher than those of wood-pulp paper, Ueno  said. 
   "It's too expensive to make kenaf paper. In addition to the production 
costs, there are the high costs of transporting the material, which is 
three times bulkier than wood chips," he said. 
   Ueno said kenaf pulp is two to three times more expensive than wood 
pulp, mainly because a company in Thailand has a virtual monopoly on 
   "Kenaf is also unattractive because being an annual plant and subject 
to weather conditions, paper makers cannot rely on a stable supply as  they
can with wood," he said. 
   Morishima at Nagoya City University said it is not surprising that 
paper manufacturers are not keen on using alternatives to wood pulp. 
   "The big paper companies own forests for the specific purpose of  making
paper. They would go bankrupt if they didn't use those trees. It  is the
small paper makers that we should pin our hopes on," he said. 
   The professor is currently engaged in a project in Haiti, teaching the 
locals to make paper from discarded skins and stems of bananas under  the
traditional Japanese "washi" paper method. He has also taught  people in
Ecuador how to use banana waste to make paper. 
   Morishima said it would be more beneficial to the environment to find 
ways to make use of materials that are discarded rather than producing  and
harvesting a crop for the specific purpose of making paper. 
   While the kenaf boom has gone a bit too far in spreading its 
environmentally friendly image, "at least the boom has given an 
opportunity to people to get back to basics and rethink the way we can 
live in harmony with nature," he said.