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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
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
"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,
"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.