Earlier this year, I found myself in a gift shop in Egypt that specialized in colorful prints on papyrus. It is not exactly paper, but papyrus (from which we get the word paper) does accept printing and writing readily. How old is this idea? Thousands of years?
Today, the environmental movement is putting great pressure on the harvesting of trees to make paper and forestry costs rise. This has led to new interest in making treeless paper. Making paper from nonwood fibers is decidedly not a modern idea. In fact, the Chinese inventor of paper in AD 105, defibered rags (probably cotton or linen) to make his sheets. It was a long time before papermakers in the western world began to think of any fiber sources other than rags bought from pushcart operators who bought rags from housewives.
In China and India, mills that pulp bamboo have been cranking out production for quite a while. In regions that have the right climate, interest in extracting fiber from this fast-growing plant source is growing almost as fast as the bamboo does.
A few years ago, my wife and I were on a cruise ship that stopped at a port in Costa Rica. Bananas, bananas! Shipping bananas was the principal activity of this little port and sweet wifey and I went on a tour of a banana plantation. In the inevitable gift shop, I purchased a note pad of paper made from the fibers in a banana tree trunk. Interesting, I thought.
Now comes word from the University of Uyo, in Awka Ibom, Nigeria, of serious research into the use of banana fibers. Scientists there have produced pulp, paper, cellulosic plastics, decorative textile costumes, fiberboard and floor tiles from the low-lignin fibers in banana tree trunks. There is a very good chance that their research is going to become important and will be joined by researchers in other countries around the globe.
We who live in regions north of the tropical zones are generally not aware of the extent of banana cultivation in those zones. Growing bananas is an enormous, widespread, tropical enterprise. Banana trees are annuals. When the fruit bunches have been cut off them, the trunks are then felled and usually left to rot. The scientists see a lot of fiber rotting away.
There is no shortage of fiber available for papermaking around the world. A proposed $184 million pulp mill in Washington State, USA, plans to take straw, a waste product from wheat and alfalfa farms, and convert it into pulp for paper and packaging. This straw is usually turned under as mulch or burned in situ. Worldwide, wheat straw is potentially a gigantic fiber source.
An industry conditioned to see only trees as its source of fiber may have to change its thinking as environmental pressures continue and forestry procurement costs continue to soar. There certainly is lots to think about in terms of fiber sources in this fibrous world.
Chuck Swann is senior editor of Paperitalo Publications.