Jin Jiling, China
– In silent temperature-controlled labs in a dusty part of Hainan, China’s most tropical province, rows of women in medical masks and lab coats clone trees that grow freakishly fast.
The trees have official names, such as APP-22 or DH32-29.
But Wending Huang, Asia Pulp & Paper Co.’s chief forester in China, calls them his “Yao Mings” – after the towering Chinese basketball star. The tiny green tissue samples, methodically implanted in Petri jars, will become hardwood eucalyptus trees that need only four to six years to reach full height, up to 90 feet or more.
“And then we harvest,” said Huang.
Each year, Huang’s labs clone 190 million ready-to-plant “cutlings,” which APP grows on 790,000 acres of managed timberland spread over eight Chinese provinces. The company cultivates fiber-rich hardwood as intensively as U.S. agribusinesses grow gene-optimized corn and wheat.
The test-tube forests have helped undo the longstanding natural advantage of papermaking states such as Wisconsin, where hardwood trees are plentiful but can take up to 10 times as long to reach harvesting height. What’s more, boosted by billions in government subsidies, China has been building
massive new mills with automated machines that can produce a mile of glossy publishing-grade paper a minute.
Over the course of the last decade, China tripled its paper production and in
2009 overtook the United States as the world’s biggest papermaker. It can now match the annual output of Wisconsin, America’s top papermaking state, in the span of three weeks.
A Wisconsin implant
Jeff Lindsay, 52, is a 20-year veteran of Wisconsin’s paper industry who was recruited by APP in 2011 to run its growing portfolio of patents.
He holds a doctorate in chemical engineering, was on the faculty of the now-defunct Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, and later joined Kimberly-Clark Corp., which gave the world Kleenex. He holds 130 patents and co-authored a 2009 book, “Conquering Innovation Fatigue,” which took aim at barriers to U.S. innovation.
He now works from a ninth-floor office in APP’s China headquarters in Shanghai, a gleaming skyscraper topped with a multicolored crown that lights up at night. He feels at home in the horn-honking bustle, the labyrinth of tightly packed street merchants and seafood peddlers,
the rush of a city of 13 million.
He likes its feel of the future, the pace of change, living in “the epicenter” of Asia.
To explain it, Lindsay starts deep in the past.
Paper was invented in China (105 AD) and remains a potent national symbol. It is taught in Chinese classrooms as one of the four “great inventions,” along with the compass (200 BC), gunpowder (850 AD) and printing presses with movable type (1313).
“These inventions came from China,” Lindsay said. “When people go pointing their finger at the Chinese paper industry or saying we shouldn’t be buying paper from China – paper came from China.”
The West, he says, is in denial about the competitive edge offered by Chinese science, engineering and ingenuity. And Wisconsin’s paper industry, he says, has lost the culture of investment, innovation and risk that defined it in the last century.
The island province is on the same longitude as Vietnam and Thailand. It rains about once a day, but otherwise basks in tropical sunshine, perfect for the
eucalyptus trees, themselves an import from Australia.
The plantations are at least two hours from the nearest city, by way of dusty roads populated with water buffalo, wild pigs, goats and clattering motorbikes. The labs, in the shadow of a faded water tower, are not fancy. Women from nearby villages have been trained to clone the trees and prune and tend to the precious cutlings, wearing straw hats to guard against the hot sun.
Now eucalyptus trees stand straight as matchsticks, with no branches apart from a tuft of leaves at the top, meaning less waste and more pulp. The trees that grow fastest are
crossbred with others to grow faster still, then re-cloned and planted – equally spaced – in symmetrical rows that APP’s scientists found optimize growth.
On a misty September day, Wending Huang – on a break from the labs – tours one of the plantations. Huang, who earned his forestry doctorate in Finland and taught at universities there before coming home to China, stops and hugs one of his “babies.”
“The quality of pulp is good,” he says. “The cost is lower because the tree grows fast and you don’t need to import so much.”
And even faster-growing forests, he says, are not far off.
“The super Yao Ming will be coming.”