Ask people where paper products come from and most will point to trees. But far from any forest, Kimberly-Clark is innovating new sources of material designed to meet people’s everyday needs while caring for the planet and creating value for its business.
One new source comes from farms on the Great Plains in the heartland of the United States. This flat, prairie region isn’t home to many trees. But it is ideal for growing wheat.
Mechanized combines have simplified the job of separating wheat grain from the chopped, dried stems and leaves. But this has not solved the problem of what to do with the straw that’s left behind.
“We want to be good stewards and take the right amount of straw off and leave the rest for the next crop,” said Brian Dunn, a wheat farmer in Kansas.
Jessica McCarty, an expert on crop residue at Michigan Tech University, explained that, “Farmers have to get rid of the straw in some way. The easiest way is to burn it, but that impacts air quality. If there was an economic way for farmers to reutilize their wheat straw, I believe burning would just about go away.”
Meeting essential needs
As farmers in Kansas were working to clear the wheat straw from their fields, Kimberly-Clark’s fiber development experts were working to find alternatives to the fibers traditionally used for manufacturing paper towels and tissues.
Kimberly-Clark Professional uses a blend of fiber from sustainably managed forests and recycled paper to produce paper towels and tissues that are environmentally responsible and meet the quality and performance expectations associated with the Kleenex and Scott brands. But demand for forest resources and recycled paper continues to increase – all while computers, tablets and e-readers are reducing the amount of paper going into recycling bins in the first place.
All of this has contributed to Kimberly-Clark’s interest in identifying unique new sources of fiber.
Kimberly-Clark has committed to source 90 percent of fiber used in its tissue products from Environmentally Preferred Fiber sources by 2025.
It defines those sources as recycled fiber, FSC-certified virgin fiber and sustainable alternative natural fibers. By the end of 2014, 84.6 percent of its fiber purchases were made from these sources, exceeding the company’s 2014 target of 70 percent. Kimberly-Clark’s ongoing development effort in alternative fibers, such as fiber derived from wheat straw, provides the company with additional approaches to achieving this goal.
“You can make the fiber used to make paper out of almost any form of cellulose,” said Cristine Schulz, North American sustainability business partner at Kimberly-Clark and a pulp and paper engineer. Cellulose is the natural material found in plants that is used in manufacturing paper. “What you can’t do with just any fiber is build a good economic and ecological model. You have to be able to make fiber work from a technical, quality and environmental perspective.”
While the Kimberly-Clark team continues to study a variety of potential alternatives, they recently commercialized a bundle of products containing fiber derived from wheat straw.
Making a positive contribution
When Kimberly-Clark began working with wheat straw fiber, it had never been utilized on a commercial scale in North America for tissue and towel products. None of Kimberly-Clark’s mills were configured to process the material, nor had it been part of the company’s supply chain. The team had seen examples of the material used in other countries, but importing wheat straw fiber was expensive. The solution had to be a local one.
The team started by calling farmers in the area to obtain samples of wheat straw. Kimberly-Clark’s engineers and scientists then developed methods for extracting fiber from the straw, and the team formed new partnerships to begin purchasing wheat straw directly from local farmers like Brian Dunn.
In the United States, wheat straw has proven to be a suitable source of fiber. It’s finding its way into a range of products like Kleenex and Scott brand folded towels from Kimberly-Clark Professional’s GreenHarvest line, which is composed of 20 percent rapidly renewable fiber.
“It’s a local proposition,” explained Schulz – with global reach. Rather than settling on a single solution, Kimberly-Clark is experimenting with several alternatives from local sources. It’s looking for the same combination found on the Great Plains – fibers that provide the quality people expect through a sustainable source – to take care of the planet while making a positive contribution in communities.
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