Tree-Free Paper Saves Forests

Creating paper from wheat waste gives forests a break - and harvesters a new revenue stream.

Columbia Pulp has become the first tree-free pulping facility in North America, with a design capacity to process 240,000 tons of straw that the farmers would otherwise throw away each year. What was once waste could now be salvaged and sold for pulp to make paper products that didn’t require felling a single tree.

Washington’s iconic forests of Douglas fir, western hemlock and sitka spruce are some of the most efficient carbon-sequestration ecosystems in the world. Taken together, these trees scrub 35 percent of the state’s total carbon emissions. All that wood is also worth a lot of money - net timber revenues from state forestland amounted to $124 million in 2018.

The tension is evident: a state whose forests are a critical carbon sink has built an economy that relies on turning those forests into plywood, sawdust and paper products. But Washington is also home to a vast landscape of about 2.2 million acres of wheat fields that undulate across its southeastern flank, making it America’s third largest producer of wheat.

One of the many challenges of profitable wheat production is that the stalk closest to the ground is too dense for the combine to run through, so farmers must figure out how to clear what’s left standing after the harvest. There are essentially three options: till, burn, or bale. The first two are undesirable. Tilling dries out the soil and causes erosion, and burning fills the air with noxious smoke. That leaves baling as the most environmentally friendly option. The question is, what to do with all those bales of unusable leftover straw?

“That’s where Columbia Straw comes in,” says Rankin, who got involved with Columbia Pulp in 2014 after seeing a need to form connections between the company and the people producing wheat. Columbia Straw Supply works with local balers to buy up all that leftover wheat straw, which Columbia Pulp turns into pulp for paper products, giving farmers a new stream of revenue - and pushing the paper industry in a more sustainable direction.

Between the forest conservation and the more efficient processing techniques, Columbia Pulp estimates that replacing 140,000 tons of conventional pulp with its own version would save 133,000 metric tons of CO2 per year - the equivalent of what’s absorbed by 5.8 million trees.