Trends in Japan

Top Picks || Business& Economy || Culture & Society
Science & Technology || Search|| Back Numbers

Boom in Use of Non-Wood Paper Products

March 14, 1998

The stems of the kenaf plant are used to produce pulp. (Image: Hiroshi Hara)

Recent years have seen increased use of paper made not from wood pulp, but from materials like bagasse, the fiber remaining after juice is extracted from sugar cane, and kenaf, an Asian plant similar to jute. These materials have been used by some companies to make business cards for several years, but bagasse took a big step forward among firms and labor organizations following its use in all copier and printer paper at the global warming conference held in Kyoto in December 1997. Bagasse, obtainable without cutting down trees, contributes to the preservation of the forests that absorb carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases. Its use is expected to grow as its cost continues to drop and its quality to rise.

Bagasse Booms in Kyoto
From December 1 to 11, the Japanese government hosted the Third Session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP3) in the city of Kyoto. In keeping with the goals of the conference, the Japanese government looked to bagasse, with its low impact on the environment, as a base material for paper used at the conference. Conference documents and press release materials were printed on paper incorporating 10% cane fiber and 90% recycled paper pulp. In all, over 2 million sheets of bagasse paper were used at the conference--saving trees equivalent to 1,000 two-meter logs 14 centimeters in diameter.

Bagasse is a waste product resulting from the manufacture of sugar from cane. By using the substance, which had previously been discarded, paper makers have reduced the need to grow new sources of pulp and boosted both the reduction of waste and the reuse of resources. And most importantly, the practice ties in with the preservation of the earth's forests, which absorb carbon dioxide and otherwise play an important role in the global ecosystem.

The bagasse content of paper has ranged widely since it came into the market some four years ago, from 10% in copier paper to as much as 70% in business cards, but production of 100% bagasse paper is now feasible, according to industry sources. Thanks to technological improvements, the quality, look, and feel of pure bagasse paper is indiscernible from normal wood-pulp paper. As with other products made from recycled resources, at first the cost of bagasse paper was higher than regular paper. Now, however, there is little difference in price: A package of 2,500 A-4 (roughly letter-size) sheets retails for around 1,600 yen (12 U.S. dollars at 130 yen to the dollar).

Use of bagasse paper jumped at around the time of the Kyoto conference. The head office of the All Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers' Union, which uses some 300 sheets of fax paper each day, switched entirely to bagasse stock in early December. The union intends to call on related organizations to make the same switch. In addition to the rapidly increasing number of companies using cane-pulp paper for their employees' business cards, some mail-order firms are printing their catalog order forms on bagasse sheets. And in February 1997, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications printed 42 million limited-edition postcards: As well as pictures on a spring theme, these cards featured 30% bagasse content. The ministry is now looking at similar products using other types of non-wood paper for 1998.

Paper manufacturers have begun the full-scale import of bagasse pulp from Taiwan and Colombia, mixing it with used paper and wood pulp to produce bagasse stock. Fifteen domestic manufacturers now produce approximately 3,000 metric tons of paper having some bagasse content annually. Most of this product is made only to fill direct orders, but with an eye on the growing demand for the paper, some makers are advancing plans to offer bagasse sheet paper to general consumers in retail stores.

Kenaf Also On the Rise
Non-wood pulp has long been used in Japan's traditional washi paper: The English names of plants like kozo and mitsumata--paper mulberry and paper bush--attest to this. But the material attracting the most attention these days as a non-wood pulp source, along with bagasse, is kenaf, an Asiatic plant of the mallow family. Its pulp is close in quality to that obtained from wood, making it friendly to the paper-manufacturing process; and being a hard-to-deplete annual plant, it lends itself readily to an increased production scale.

The plant now grows mainly in China and southeast Asia, but it is a hardy grass that takes root in most regions. Seeds planted in spring grow by autumn into plants three to four meters high and three to four centimeters in diameter. Trial plantings of kenaf have been carried out throughout Japan for the last few years, particularly in elementary and middle schools, where they offer a chance to observe the growth process of the plant and to experience papermaking after its harvest.

Industrial production of kenaf-pulp paper began about the same time as bagasse-paper production, and its use was limited at first mainly to business cards. But the range of applications has widened along with increasing awareness of topics like the importance of preserving forest resources: Kenaf products now on the market include printer, copier, and fax paper, tissue paper, notebooks, and paper cups.

At present, however, Thailand remains the almost exclusive center of kenaf-pulp production. This is not an ideal situation: A bad harvest could threaten the stable and sufficient supply of the resource, and having only one source keeps the prices of kenaf-based products somewhat higher. Increasing the geographical range of production, stabilizing the supply of the material, and bringing down the final cost of products are seen as the keys to widening the use of kenaf in the paper industry.

Looking Away from the Woods
Most paper in general use today is made by extracting a fibrous material called cellulose from deciduous or evergreen wood, processing this into pulp, and spreading this pulp into a thin layer. Most people today think of paper as having always been a wood product, but the history of wood-pulp paper is surprisingly short, having begun only in the mid-nineteenth century. What we would today consider paper was first made some 2,000 years ago in China from hemp and other materials. But using plant fiber as source material was not suitable for mass production, and once the technology was developed to extract fiber from wood, trees quickly became the prime resource for paper production.

Japan, with an annual per capita usage of 239 kilograms in 1995, is fourth on the list--topped by the United States--of the world's paper-consuming nations. Relatively advanced in the field of paper recycling, Japan has seen its percentage of reused paper rise to 53%. But seeing that half the paper consumed still comes from wood pulp, the remainder being recycled paper or non-wood fiber, even this high percentage translates into an annual per capita consumption equivalent to about 20 trees 10 meters tall and 20 centimeters in diameter.

The overall area of the earth covered by forests is shrinking fast, leading to global warming and desertification. In order to halt this destructive trend, Japan, as one of the world's major paper-consuming nations, is showing an increased awareness of the need to boost reliance on non-wood paper products in the future.

Back to Main Index

Trends in Japan Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Japan Information Network