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Will the next new fiberline in the US be for bamboo?

The last greenfield kraft mill built in North America was AlPac in Alberta in the early 1990s. The level of protest by environmental advocacy groups at the time was so strong that obtaining construction permits took several years, and by some reports, cost approaching $100 million, including the costs of delays to the project. Many people believe that obtaining permits for a new kraft mill in Canada or the US would be impossible today. However, nobody has tried, so who knows?

It is impossible to predict the extent of opposition to a new kraft mill. I was quite heavily involved in the protracted battles over the Botina greenfield bleached kraft mill at Fray Bentos in Uruguay, several years ago. This involved protests with over 40,000 people marching, and the closure of the most important highway bridge between Argentina and Uruguay for about 3 years. I ended up with several others appearing in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, supporting Botnia. We have never seen environmental protests over a pulp mill even approach this in Canada or the US.

More recently I was retained to assist in writing the Environmental Impact Assessment for a second large kraft mill a couple of hundred kilometers downstream from Fray Bentos, still in Uruguay. This process went smoothly, with the normal public meetings, and construction approval took only a few months. Both mills were designed to similar, very high, environmental standards, and were practicing similar forestry practices. There is no rational reason for the dramatic difference between the difficulties in obtaining construction permits.

I believe that a well designed new mill in a sensible site could obtain permits in the US or Canada. A recent announcement by Kimberly Clark may hasten the day.

The company announced a couple of months ago that it intends to replace half the virgin wood fiber used in its products by 2025. This is expected to be achieved by a mixture or recycled fiber and alternative virgin fibers such as wheat straw and bamboo. Of course, the pulp could be imported, but given the purchasing power of KC for North American use, this opens the door to a wheat straw or bamboo mill. Any bamboo mill would of course have to be in the steamy South East, and be based on plantations.

Bamboo has long been used for papermaking, but for the past 100 years or so has been seen as an inferior fiber source to wood.

While the classic kraft process and equipment can be used to make pulp from bamboo, with relatively minor modifications, there are some major process challenges. The greatest is probably the high silica content of bamboo relative to the traditional pulping woods, which creates major problems in the recovery loop.

Most of the currently operating bamboo kraft mills dump the lime from the recausticizing loop, as well as losing far more black liquor that would be accepted by environmental regulators for a new and/or large mill. They escape the regulatory net by being very small and being located in areas where environmental requirements are not stringent. Such mills are disappearing rapidly, because of water pollution and operating cost issues. Thousands of tiny, primitive, non-wood pulp mills have closed in South East Asia and India over the past 20 years or so.

However, there are now a few medium sized kraft mills pulping bamboo, who seem to have solved the silica and other problems, and to be operating to environmental standards comparable to current US mills. For example, Bob Hurter of Hurterconsult kindly provided me with some information on the Guizhou Chitianhua Paper Industrial Co. Ltd 750 tpd bamboo kraft mill in China.

This suggests that a new bamboo kraft mill could obtain the necessary environmental permits to be built in the US.

On 18th June, Greenpeace issued a press release applauding K-C’s above mentioned plan to replace pulp made form virgin wood with other fibers, including bamboo. This suggests that the environmental advocacy groups could be significant supporters of a new mill. I know from firsthand experience that the major groups respond positively to advanced environmental initiatives. Greenpeace provided positive comments on the abovementioned Fray Bentos mill at the height of the disputes, because they recognised that it was an environmentally advanced mill which would cause no measurable environmental damage.

Kimberly Clark’s new policy on sourcing raw materials was presumably driven by Greenpeace’s campaign that commenced in 2005. This campaign ended in 2009, subsequent to K-C releasing a new environmental policy. Both organizations announced that they were moving "away from conflict to a new collaborative relationship to further promote forest conservation, responsible forest management, and the use of recycled fiber for the manufacture of tissue products."

By the above rationale, it is possible that the KC policy of shifting purchasing to pulps manufactured from non-wood sources could also lead to a new straw pulp mill in Canada or the US.

Prairie Pulp and Paper Inc, has announced intentions of building a mill using straw as the principal raw material. The company is presently test-marketing copy paper containing 80% straw fiber, and 20% wood fiber. The project is still in the pre-feasibility study stage, although the owners are enthusiastic. If it goes ahead, it could become the first Greenfield mill in Canada in nearly 20 years.

The seasonal nature of the raw material supply is of course an issue. Time will tell if this is solved.

Instead of a new mill using straw or bamboo as feedstock, the possibility of a new fiberline in an existing mills of course exists, and would be a less radical, and less risky, departure from current practice.



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Members Opinions:
September 07, 2012 at 11:07am

As a consultant with over 30 years experience in the use of nonwood fibers for pulp & paper, I would like to correct a few misconceptions.

First, there are over 1200 species of bamboo identified globally. Properties of the fibers range from species similar to hardwoods, species similar or better than softwoods and species with properties between hardwood and softwood. By growing bamboo in farms, you can literally select species that meet your fiber property requirements.

Regarding silica, bamboo typically has between 1.5-3% inherent (part of the plant) silica versus less than 1% for wood. But, with a carefully designed recovery system, it is possible to address the higher silica content of bamboo without the need to dump all of the lime mud. Also, there are newer recovery technologies such as the Siloxy process that can fully address the silica issue.

Regarding a greenfield mill versus an add-on bamboo line, there is little reason why bamboo cannot be used in an existing woodpulp mill with some adjustments to process conditions. In fact, it is entirely possible to co-cook & bleach wood and bamboo in the same line provided that the bamboo species is somewhat similar to the wood species with respect to fiber properties. If, however, the decision is for an add-on bamboo line, then blending the wood and bamboo black liquors could address the silica issue to a large extent.

In my opinion, bamboo offers great potential for a wide range of applications.

Regarding the Prairie Pulp and Paper project, I did the prefeasibility study for the project. For printing/writing grades, wheat straw offers great potential. Wheat straw has an inherent silica content of 4-8% much higher than bamboo and wood. But again, proper design of the recovery loop can address most of the issues.

For tissue, wheat straw would not be my first choice. It is being used in other places for this application such as Packages Limited in Pakistan but the tissue tends to have a rougher feel than that made from wood and likely will not be well accepted in North America which is used to soft feel tissue products. The reason is due to the nature of the straw fiber.

Bob Hurter
HurterConsult Inc.
Ottawa, Canada

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