Last year, China’s elite political conferences unveiled the invention of pollution-free, biodegradable “stone-based paper”. For a while, this product enjoyed leadership approval, government support and awards. Local governments flocked to it as their new, environmentally friendly pet project; hundreds of stone-based paper-making projects started across China.
But was it all a lot of fuss about an environmental fairytale? Or is it really a technological revolution? Reporters from Southern Weekend spent a month trying to find out the truth.
A paper revolution
It may be 2,000 years since the death of Cai Lun, China’s inventor of paper, but recently the country found itself in the midst of another paper-making revolution – making paper from stone. So claimed a previously unknown firm from Dalian, north-east China, which claimed to have discovered this new technology – perhaps as miraculous as turning water into wine – and said to mark the end of the era of making paper from plant fibre.
Paper-making has always been a major polluter. But this new product, which uses the calcium carbonate in limestone as a raw material, was said to be safe, green, non-toxic, water-resistant and tear-proof. The makers claimed the production process required no water and emitted no waste.
Stone-based paper came to the attention of the public during last year’s two big political conferences: the National People's Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing. Delegates were issued with notices, agendas and notepaper on heavier, colder paper, printed with the phrase “environmentally-friendly stone paper”.
Since the central government promotes environmental protection, this high-tech product quickly became a sensation, a great example of the green economy being discussed. The company that claimed to have invented stone paper, “Champion of the Earth (Dalian) Stone Paper Technology”, received unprecedented publicity.
During the 10 days of the conferences, leaders of 12 provinces confirmed an interest in cooperating with the company, which found itself overwhelmed by more than 1,000 phone calls from potential partners. “We’re getting over 10 visits from individuals or groups every day,” the company claimed, adding that “excited discussion continued [after the conferences], creating the right atmosphere for the start of global sales.” Would anyone question the reality of stone-based paper?
The company’s expansion seemed unstoppable. On May 30, 2010, chief executive Zhang Chongwu proudly told Southern Weekend that the company had started its industrial rollout in nine provinces. “By 2012 we will have production capacity of 5.4 million tonnes a year, worth 36 billion yuan (US$5.5 billion), and will be making 10.5 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) in profit,” he said. The largest of these projects was in the county of Wangqing, Jilin province, with an investment of 10.6 billion yuan. Only two years earlier, planned spending on the project was a mere 650 million yuan – there had been a 17-fold increase. “Some local governments don’t even want to negotiate, they just want to get started,” said Zhang. “Like Huadian in Jilin, it only took 27 days from first getting in touch to the start of construction, and then only 101 days to completion.”
In fact, it would require investment of 30 billion yuan to complete all the planned stone-based paper projects. “How many years will it be before we see so much investment so quickly again?” said one paper-industry insider.
Old wine, new bottles?
But the company’s sudden success left Liu Renqing, formerly professor of paper-making at Beijing Technology and Business University, puzzled. “In 1972 we looked at the technology for making paper from non-organic powder and tree resin with a Japanese firm, and shortly after produced a type of paper from a calcium-plastic composite that was mostly calcium carbonate,” said Liu. He had kept some samples of the paper made 30 years ago. It looked older than the Champion of the Earth’s product, but the feel was not much different. “It’s not a new product,” said Cao Chenlei, secretary-general of the China Technical Association of Paper Industry. This type of paper was promoted decades ago, he said, when it was known as “untearable” paper and was used mainly for business cards.
Cao Chunyu, head of the China National Pulp and Paper Research Institute, also concluded that this was not a new or high-tech product. “It’s a kind of plastic film with lots of filler,” he said.
After Champion of the Earth’s factory was up and running, Liu Renqing performed some tests and said that the stone-based paper was made from limestone powder with a 60% to 70% calcium-carbonate content, tree-resin compounds and some other additives. “It’s similar to early calcium-plastic paper,” he said. After looking at the publicity shots of Champion of the Earth’s manufacturing equipment, he confirmed: “It’s just ordinary plastics equipment.”
Cao Chenlei recently attended the Third Sino-Japan Paper-Making Technology Conference in Tokyo. “The Japanese experts thought it was funny when they heard stone-based paper had become popular in China – the same type of product was long ago researched and used in Japan, but it is not biodegradable.” Asked to confirm this, an official from the Ministry of Science and Technology, who asked to remain anonymous, laughed and said: “Anyone with a bit of knowledge sees it for what it is right away. If it really was a mature technology with a big market, the developed nations would have done it already.”
Song Xu, chairman of Champion of the Earth’s parent company, Liaodong Xinde Holdings, has six new-application patents for stone paper.
Said Liu Renqing: “That kind of new-application patent isn’t the same as an invention. It’s like putting a square head on a screw instead of a round one – it’s not a real invention, like Edison’s light bulb. Usually you fill in an application, make a statement and pay a few hundred yuan or so, and it’s awarded.” Sure enough, it currently takes an average of 25.8 months to patent an invention in China, but 5.8 months – a quarter of the time – to register a new application.
Materials provided by Champion of the Earth claim that stone paper “has already been awarded two global invention patents”. But our investigations found that so far, these applications have not been granted.
On May 11, the Ministry of Science and Technology’s High and New Technology Research and Development Centre lead a team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Jilin University and the China Pulp and Paper Research Institute to Wangqing, apparently due to interest in the technology at central-government level.
The group produced a report that concluded: “the product the company calls stone–based paper . . . is fundamentally a type of macromolecular film compounded with non-organic filler, as are products from Formosa Plastics, Longmeng and Japan’s Little Prince company.” Investigations by Southern Weekend found that Japan, Taiwan and France all produce composite papers with calcium carbonate as the main ingredient, mostly used in labels and playing cards. The product so far doesn’t threaten to replace conventional paper.
The report also gave an early verdict on the purported biodegradability of the product. “As for biodegradability, the group believes that . . . there is a lack of technical data or research findings. Scientific evidence is inadequate.” The group took four samples of stone-based paper from Wangqing and asked the Plastics Engineering Laboratory at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to carry out an independent evaluation. On June 4, the deputy director of the centre, Li Junhui, said that although final results would still take some time, it could basically be concluded that stone-based paper was not biodegradable.
Despite the publicity to the contrary, Champion of the Earth only has the single manufacturing facility in Wangqing. At the end of May a reporter from Southern Weekend was permitted to visit the plant, but was not allowed to take photographs due to “commercial confidentiality.”
Far from the hot, noisy place you might expect, the factory was a building the size of an aircraft hangar, divided into northern and southern zones, with the southern section completely empty. At the northern end there were a few machines that could be viewed through a window, but none were in operation and there were few workers.
The equipment for grinding calcium carbonate into a “liquid state” could not be seen, apparently due to the need to protect trade secrets. But Song Xu explained that problems with the equipment and the weather had meant that two limestone quarries purchased by the company had not yet started work and the limestone was being brought in from outside.
The workers at the plant all thought that stone-based paper was a high-tech product. One said the first thing they were taught on the job was secrecy, and confidentiality agreements were signed. Zhang Chongwu, the chief executive, said that the equipment was even manufactured in four different locations and only assembled at the plant itself, to prevent the equipment being copied.
Also secret were the names of the 10 universities that Champion of the Earth claimed as technology partners. Song Xu said that one university involved in stone-based paper research had been named by the press, and dozens of companies and local governments turned up trying to obtain the technology.
No one has published even the most basic third-party testing on the stone-based paper. Consequently, there are strong doubts about them in the paper industry. The Ministry of Science and Technology group had hoped to test the macromolecule polymers used in the manufacturing process, but they were refused. Zhang Chongwu said: “Even if the minister asked me personally, I wouldn’t tell him what they are.”
On January 26, 2010, one ministry held an unusually grand press conference on stone-based paper, with officials from the National People’s Conference and People’s Political Consultative Conference in attendance, along with more than 100 media outlets. In October 2009, there had been media reports that the company was providing stone-based paper free-of-charge to the two highest political bodies, and this opened the door to their annual conferences. Zhang Chongwu said that 2010’s target was to become an approved supplier for state bodies under central jurisdiction. Many have asked how one small and previously unknown company could have such incredible success.
Champion of the Earth is also remarkably successful in its local operations. In May, at the ceremony to mark the start of production at the Wangqing plant, the prefectural government announced a ban on the use of plastic bags, with stone-based paper bags to be used instead and subsidies for major purchases of stone-based paper products.
Some complained about unfair competition, with local government creating preferential policies for the company, and some were envious. With government backing at all levels, how could stone-based paper fail?
Song Xu is keen to give journalists his other business card: executive director, Chinese Kuomingtang Central Revolutionary Committee Painting Academy. Someone who had previously worked with Song said that the academy is a platform for Song’s networking. Song once told a reporter that he had simply started an art periodical, with 10,000 copies delivered every quarter to cadres at the deputy provincial level or above.
Champion of the Earth frequently mentions its leadership approval and ministerial support, which must have given the company an advantage over other firms. But when asked for details, both Zhang and Song cite confidentiality.
An official with the National People’s Political Consultative Conference Environment and Resources Commission Office who attended a stone-based paper press conference made it clear that they had never publicly indicated support for stone-based paper or published any material promoting it.
Champion of the Earth is determined to rebut criticism. Zhang Chongwu has more than once indicated his discontent, saying: “Those who say our product isn’t high-tech are just worried we will take the traditional paper market.” Song Xu said friends have reminded him that “you can’t take on take on challenges from both the traditional paper and the petrochemical industries.”
Taiwan’s Longmeng Technology also makes stone-based paper, having started slightly later than Japan. In the 1980s and 1990s, Longmeng tried to enter the Chinese mainland market, but high costs and other reasons meant they failed. But Zhang Chongwu blames their failure on the mistake of relying on equipment sales rather than stone-based paper itself.
As far as Zhang is concerned, the future for stone-based paper is bright. “In the future China will rule that all school workbooks will be made of stone-based paper,” said Zhang. “We can also make newsprint,” he added. But paper industry experts including Liu Renqing, Cao Chunyu and Cao Chenlei say that current technology will not allow stone-based paper to replace traditional paper, nor can it be used in high-speed printing.
Li Hengyuan, former head of the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s Policy and Law Office, once participated in a study of stone-based paper. He also believes that it has its value, but it cannot replace traditional paper. “I told stone-based paper spokesperson Pu Cunxin not to say that this paper could replace traditional paper,” Li said. The Ministry of Science and Technology expert group agreed. This kind of composite paper has good durability, they said, and could be used for some special applications such as outdoor advertising and long-lasting packaging. But recycling issues mean that care must be taken not to affect the operation of the existing paper recycling industry.
Faced with these criticisms, Zhang Chongwu struggles to control his anger. “Our stone paper is a completely new product, they just don’t understand it, nor can they. There aren’t any experts on it in China, the real experts are all here with us” he said. He added: “The plastics and paper industries have got no right to criticise us.”
He said the paper industry’s rejection of stone-based paper is mere protectionism. “Even if, one day, the so-called experts at the Ministry of Science and Technology shut us down, it won’t make any difference, we’ll keep going.” Champion of the Earth says that they are going to hold a meeting on stone-based paper for academics in Beijing. Zhang Chongwu said he is confident that when he employs 100 academic experts as consultants all the critics will fall silent.
Lu Zongshu is a reporter at Southern Weekend; Wang Qing and Wang Xiaoye are interns at Southern Weekend. This article was originally published in Southern Weekend on June 10, 2010.
Homepage image from toboe shows a sample of "stone-based paper".