WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A company plans to roll out a new line of tissues and paper towels this month that incorporates wheat straw and bamboo, which it hopes will provide a rapidly renewable and environmentally friendly source of fiber for its products while giving farmers a new market for what remains after the grain is harvested.
Kimberly-Clark Professional, which manufactures Kleenex and Scott brand products, says its new "GreenHarvest" line will blend in 20 percent wheat straw, which it hopes will ease demand for the tree fiber and recycled paper it already uses. It will help conserve natural resources and address what the Roswell, Georgia-based company expects will be dwindling supplies of recycled paper.
"As we become more and more digital and perhaps that resource becomes less and less available, what is next? How are we going to continue to make paper products? And looking at these non-tree plant fiber alternatives is the next step," said Iris Schumacher, the company's North American sustainability leader. She said she thinks Kimberly-Clark's incorporation of the new fiber sources into everyday essentials such as toilet paper will likely lead competitors to follow suit.
Wheat straw is already used in a few paper products, including a line of copy paper made of 80 percent straw that Staples sells. And later this month, the industry trade group Kansas Wheat will be meeting with representatives from a Tiawanese company called npulp that uses wheat straw to make corrugated paper and packaging materials.
Scientific developments are also making it easier to break down cellulosic plant material and turn it into biofuels, and that makes plant material such as wheat straw and corn stover more attractive sources for cellulosic biofuel plants like the one operating in Holcomb, Kansas.
"People want sustainability in using natural materials, renewable materials," said Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations at Kansas Wheat.
Straw has also long been used for livestock bedding and mulch material.
Much of the straw stays in the field, especially in the drier areas of western Kansas, because it preserves moisture and prevents wind erosion, Harries said. But in the wetter parts of central Kansas where much of the state's wheat is grown, there is usually plenty of excess straw that would be available.
"What it really does is provide some extra value to farmers who are able to sell their straw to one of these companies," Harries said.
Kimberly-Clark began exploring the use of wheat straw back in 2011 and test marketed its prototype products in Canada, Indiana and California before deciding on a full-scale rollout this year, Schumacher said. The straw will be turned into pulp at its mill in Mobile, Alabama.
Its "GreenHarvest" line includes Scott multi-fold towels and toilet tissue using 20 percent wheat straw fiber and Kleenex roll towels and bathroom tissue using 20 percent bamboo fiber. The products will not be sold at retail stores, but will be offered directly to commercial customers such as sports venues and higher education institutions, Schumacher said. The company's consumer side will be keeping a close eye on how well it does there, she said.
Brian Dunn, who has a diversified farm near St. John in western Kansas, said he sold Kimberly-Clark 150 tons of straw — about six semi-truck loads of it — about two years ago when the company first started researching the product.
"I've got young boys now that maybe someday, I hope, will have the opportunity to farm and we always try to find something else that might add value to our farm. ... I am always interested in new technology and new things, and so it was something interesting we could do, too, as part of our farming operation," he said.
But last year the drought left his wheat so short that he just plowed what little straw there was back into the soil, and it is so dry this season that he doesn't anticipate having any excess straw to sell this year, either.
David Kreider, a custom harvester in Metter, Georgia, said he bales straw from about 20 farms which he then sells to Kimberley-Clark for between $80 and $90 a ton, the going market price for it.
He said he has been trying to educate farmers that they can get money for their straw, instead of just burning their wheat fields after harvest like many have done in years past. Kimberly-Clark has been steadily increasing its purchase of straw as it prepares to roll out its new line of bathroom tissues made using straw, he said.
"I am very curious to see the end product," Kreider said.
Kimberly-Clark figures that an acre of wheat could yield as much as a ton of straw — enough fiber to make 7,100 rolls of toilet paper.
"It is a pretty interesting product," Dunn said. "And I am glad to know they can turn that old, prickly straw into something soft for your bottom."