Friday, May 1, 2009

Greening Your Paper

Paper. It comes in countless forms, be it for magazines (shiny), newspaper (thin), or office printers. The material is used for more than just traditional sheets; there are sticky notes, mailing envelopes, and packaging that embrace its varied purposes. Of course, all paper, at its base, is the same, right? The conventional wisdom reads: paper = tree, with the primary variations being in what quality level is desired. Unfortunately, this isn’t entirely true. There are many aspects to consider, from recycled content (and is it pre- or post-consumer?) and certification level, to chlorine content. Let’s go through in that order.

Recycled paper products have been available for many years, and are perhaps the most widely used of the “green” office supplies. The premise is that the paper is produced from other paper as opposed to new trees. It can originate through pre- or post-consumer material, but what is the difference? Pre-consumer content may have been paper, but for a variety of reasons (off-cuts, misprints, poor quality, etc.) failed to be released from the production process. Much of this is immediately recycled, therefore explaining the high prevalence of pre-consumer content in recycled products. Post-consumer content originates from the paper you place in your office recycle bin. The percentage seen on the recycled paper packaging at the store is the sum of both these paper formats.

So, now you’re wondering why all paper isn’t simply 100% recycled (with varying pre- and post-consumer content)? Well, different compositions are better suited for differing purposes. Beyond 35% post-consumer content, the pulp is unreliable for commercial printing, but is normally fine for personal and office use. Paperboard, cardboard, and other packaging materials do not require a high quality, and are therefore often 100% recycled. All of these forms can be recycled approximately seven times, at which point the fibers are too short for reuse.

With no defined standard on what makes paper “recycled”, it is up to the consumer to know what they are purchasing. Seek the highest percentage of post-consumer content in the quality you need, but remember, you will likely be unable to find more than 35% due to the limitations explained previously. As new experts on recycled paper, there’s a large question that is not addressed by the recycling process: any takers? It deals with how the virgin wood pulp is harvested, thus leading the discussion to certified paper.

Certified paper is the exact same paper you’re used to, however, it originated from forests managed in a standardized way with consideration for a variety of environmental and social factors. The process is third-party monitored from tree to paper by one (or more) of three primary certification agencies: Forest Stewardship Council, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. FSC is the largest and was set up by the United Nations, while SFI was put together by the paper industry in North America, and PEFC by the same groups in France and Europe. Each operate similarly, and a producer may seek multiple certifications. This paper may also contain recycled content, however, since its production results in minimal to no net tree (or biodiversity) loss, it makes paper a more renewable and sustainable resource.

Finally, chlorine usage in the paper production process can result in large chemical effluent from the facility. To minimize this pollution, chlorine-free paper is now in production. According to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, however, there are three different labels one might see : TCF (Totally Chlorine Free), PCF (Processed Chlorine Free), and ECF (Elemental Chlorine Free). TCF means both the virgin and recycled content are chlorine free, while PCF only provides assurance the virgin fibers are free of chlorine (recycled content may contain chlorine). ECF only refers to the type of chlorine used, has no bearing on the chlorine in the paper, and therefore does not avoid the production of dioxins in the effluent.

In review, recycled or certified paper is good, certified paper with high recycled content is better, while certified recycled paper rated TCF (Totally Chlorine Free) is best. Of course, the standard practices of reducing and reusing still apply.

Enjoy your newfound paper wisdom, and print wisely!

References:
Forest Stewardship Council: www.fsc.org
Sustainable Forestry Initiative: www.sfiprogram.org
Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification: www.pefc.org
Natural Resources Council of Maine: www.nrcm.org/chlorinefreepaper.asp

Joseph Winn is the President/CEO of GreenProfit Solutions, Inc. which assists businesses in becoming environmentally responsible. You may view their website at www.greenprofitsolutions.com or e-mail Joseph at [email protected] .