2013 Winner - Jeff Golfman
|Jeff Golfman receives the 2013 3M Environmental Innovation Award for creating paper from wheat waste. (Photo: Bonnie Findley )|
Field of dreams
How Winnipegger Jeff Golfman, the winner of the 2013 3M Environmental Innovation Award, is turning waste wheat straw into an everyday paper product
By Jake MacDonald
One day Winnipeg businessman Jeff Golfman got a long-distance phone call from someone he’d never met, but whose laconic drawl sounded familiar. It was actor Woody Harrelson, who is well known for his environmental activism, particularly in the cause of forest conservation. Harrelson had tried motivating people with protest stunts, such as climbing the Golden Gate Bridge in 1996, but he eventually came to believe that protests don’t do much to change public opinion.
Jeff Golfman, president, CEO and co-founder of Prairie Paper Ventures Inc. (Photo: Prairie Paper)
In the late 1990s he decided to get directly involved in green manufacturing and went looking for someone committed to making tree-free paper. “I had a meeting with this engineer who is very knowledgeable about the making of a non-wood pulp and paper mill,” Harrelson told Corporate Knights magazine in its November 2013 issue. “I asked him who was the closest to getting this happening in North America. He turned me on to Jeff in 1998. Jeff came to Boston, and we had a great talk. I could just tell with his energy and positivity that he was the guy who could move this paper forward.”
Jeff Golfman wasn’t the first entrepreneur to come up with the idea of making tree-free paper. Waste fibre from bamboo, hemp straw and other agricultural products has been used in paper for decades, and, as Golfman embarked on creating his own product, he soon learned that more than 200 paper mills around the world were using some form of agricultural fibre.
“But they were using very small amounts and the finished product was of dubious quality and pricey,” he says. “We didn’t want to make that kind of expensive niche paper. Billions of trees are cut down every year to make paper, and most of it is used once and thrown away. I knew that if we were going to make a meaningful contribution to forest conservation, we’d have to come up with an everyday product that competed with wood-based paper in price and quality.”
According to the World Wildlife Fund, about 40 per cent of North America’s annual tree harvest goes toward paper production. Two cases of Step Forward Paper equal one tree, so consumers choosing straw-based paper made by Jeff Golfman’s Prairie Paper Ventures have so far saved more than 8,000 trees. Here’s a selection of other stats that illustrate just how significant the tree-free paper is.
• 22 Cases of Step Forward Paper to save one hectare of forestland (nearly two football fields)
• 2.7 Kilograms of CO2 saved by one 500-sheet package of Step Forward Paper, versus a package of tree-based copy paper
• 14 Years it took Golfman and partners to develop a way to turn wheat waste into high-quality, affordable paper
• ClO2 Chlorine dioxide, used in the Step Forward Paper bleaching process as a safer alternative to the conventional chlorine gas
• 12 to 18 Million tonnes of wheat straw waste produced annually, from more than 8 million hectares of wheat grown in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan
Wood fibre is used in papermaking because it adds strength, and Golfman was facing a major challenge in creating a straw-fibre paper that was strong enough to withstand photocopiers, printers and other machines. Consumers also prefer “bright white” paper, and Golfman wanted to avoid using chlorine to bleach his straw-based paper. He teamed up with a former Manitoba cabinet minister named Clayton Manness, and they spent a lot of time and money trying to resolve the shortcomings that had kept other non-wood papers on the sidelines of the marketplace.
Then Harrelson invested in the concept, and the three men formed a company called Prairie Paper Ventures. They spent the next 10 years wrestling with the many challenges that have defeated other entrepreneurs. They turned a big corner in 2012, when Staples began selling Prairie Paper’s first commercial product — a standard 500-sheet pack of photocopier paper made of 80 per cent wheat straw. Their product, marketed under the brand Step Forward Paper, is priced competitively and is selling well in both Canada and the United States — it’s seen a more than 400 per cent increase in sales from the previous year.
Jeff Golfman was raised in Winnipeg, and didn’t think much about nature until he attended a summer camp on Lake of the Woods, located east of the city on the Manitoba-Ontario border. During an overnight camp-out on a remote island, he was offended by the heaps of garbage previous campers had left behind. It was a small thing, but it stayed with him.
After graduating from the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., he started his own business cleaning swimming pools. “I made good money, but we were using chlorine and other chemicals that weren’t exactly nature friendly,” he says. “My sister and two friends were way ahead of me in environmental awareness, and they gave me a hard time over my choice of career. Deep down inside, I knew they were right.” In 1990 he sold the business and started Winnipeg’s first blue box program.
Jeff Golfman (Photo: Michael Roberts/Prairie Paper)
Golfman was a good businessman, and his blue box program became a big success. So much so, the Manitoba government took it over, and Golfman went looking for another startup. By now he was hooked on the challenge of creating an environmentally friendly enterprise, and he was intrigued by the enormous amount of waste produced by modern agriculture.
Every autumn after the harvest, farmers in Manitoba (and indeed across North America) have to till the straw left on their fields into the soil. Some even set fire to it. Not only does the practice produce carbon and create a health risk, it struck Golfman as a waste of good recyclable fibre. That’s when he decided to see if there was a viable means of turning the leftover straw into paper.
If his company’s Step Forward Paper continues its growth, it could dramatically reduce deforestation in North America. Still, there are challenges ahead. Until now, low demand for straw-based paper (which is influenced by the lack of supply) has deterred investors and paper companies from building the specialized mills that can work with straw fibre. Golfman’s company has been relying on paper mills in India to manufacture Step Forward Paper, but its next goal is to build non-wood paper mills in southern Manitoba. “They’ll be economically viable once demand is sufficient to support a 300,000-tonnes-per-year operation,” says Golfman.
But how realistic is his vision? Critics say he faces a thorny logistical challenge in gathering the widely scattered straw and affordably trucking it to a mill. Also, unlike wood, wheat straw gets moldy and discoloured when exposed to the elements, so expensive storage facilities may be required. Golfman counters that farmers are always looking for new ways of handling straw waste, and if there’s a dollar in it they’ll stockpile the straw themselves in large bales and truck it to the mill when demand requires. Golfman also points to an arm’s-length study undertaken by Canopy, a not-for-profit organization that lobbies on behalf of forest conservation and non-wood paper products, which estimates the current market could absorb 1.5 million tonnes of straw-based paper, equal to the output of four eco-friendly paper mills.
Jeff Golfman (left) with actor, long-time environmentalist and Prairie Paper Ventures Inc. co-founder Woody Harrelson (Photo: Eric Williamson/Prairie Paper)
Golfman says all the problems are solvable, and the company is building a broad base of support. Prairie Paper now has an impressive team of backers — scientists, government officials, companies such as Staples, billionaire investors such as Ron Burkle, the supermarket magnate and co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and directors such as David Richardson, a member of Canada’s oldest and most successful grain family.
Although Golfman is busy, he still finds time to work for other environmental causes such as Green Kids, a Canada-based program that helps educate and motivate young people to change the world. Just like Golfman himself is helping to do with his innovative tree-free paper.
Video on award winner Jeff Golfman
Golfman talks about how his company turns waste wheat into eco-friendly paper