By Richard Romano on November 12th, 2012
Despite the occasional encouragement to “go paperless,” there are some applications for paper that will remain ever so. Such as those produced by Kimberly-Clark, whose top bands include Kleenex, Huggies, and Scott. Even so, the company is looking to source its paper fiber from other sources, and has pledged to replace 50% of its wood fiber with non-wood fiber by 2025. GreenBiz tells us that’s the equivalent of more than three billion rolls of toilet paper. How so? One word: bamboo.
In 2011, Kimberly-Clark used 3.53 million metric tons of fiber to manufacture its products, according to company figures. Less than one-third of that amount – 1.05 million metric tons — came from recycled sources, the company reported.
In the last few years, Kimberly-Clark has been hunting for a commercially viable alternative to wood fiber. In 2009, the company adopted a procurement policy requiring 40 percent of its fiber to be sourced either from FSC-certified or recycled sources by 2011. The move brought an end to a five-year campaign by Greenpeace pressuring the company to cut its ties with suppliers hawking non FSC-certified wood. The policy also banned the use of any fiber from endangered species.
Bamboo is being looked to by many companies as a viable and attractive alternative to traditional wood. Botanically, bamboo is a grass, and comprises about 90 genera and 5,000 species. Bamboo occurs naturally in a wide variety of climates, and only Europe (and obviously Antarctica) are the only continents with no native species. Bamboo also grows extremely quickly; it is one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth—growth rates as fast as 39 inches in 24 hours are not unheard of, although that is dependent upon the species, local climate, and soul conditions. Growth of 1–4 inches per day is a bit more common, but is still pretty good. Bamboo also emerges from the ground at its full diameter, unlike trees which grow both out and up. (Bamboo stems are called culms.) However, bamboo culms have to harden before they can be used, so bamboo is typically ready for harvesting within 3–7 years.
However, naturally occurring bamboo grows quickly, yes, but only flowers every 60–100 years, which means that creating new culms naturally takes rather a long time, so there is a volume problem. And you can see what effect all this interest in bamboo has had:
Bamboo forests around the world have been overharvested to meet consumer demand. In fact, half of all bamboo species are at risk of extinction due to forest destruction, according to a report issued by the United Nations.
So…overharvesting bamboo to keep from overharvesting (or even properly harvesting) trees. Seems like a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Is that really an improvement over using wood sources?
However, a Washington State biotech company called Booshoot has developed a patented cloning process to grow large amounts of bamboo fast enough fir it to be commercially viable. This caught Kimberly-Clark’s attention.
Under its development deal, Booshoot is providing Kimberly-Clark with tens of thousands of bamboo starts for its R&D projects.
The goal: to bring bamboo into the company’s fiber fold.
Kimberly-Clark is testing the plants to see if they can grow efficiently, and whether the fiber will hold up to standards expected by consumers, such as strength and softness.
Though not exclusive, the focus is on the Moso species, a giant that grows up to 100 feet tall, produces more fiber than wood and captures four times more carbon than most trees. Because of its fast growth, less land is needed to grow bamboo fiber when compared to the same amount of wood fiber. It can be harvested in less than a decade.
The company is also experimenting with processing methods that have a greener footprint.
I think it’s nice to have alternatives, but, really, a crop is a crop is a crop, be it tree or bamboo. The goal should be effective crop management that preserves forests—again, be they bamboo or tree—and keeps them healthy.