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The Green Room: Papermakers Doing Their Part

A multitude of approaches help the planet on different levels

(Originally published in Stationery Trends)

With respect to preserving the environment, what are paper mills up to? Each has their own environmental footprint, but all have one thing in common: Ask any of them what they’re doing, and they’ll each say their efforts exceed all the others. It’s hard to tell what’s really getting done when nearly every paper mill Web site has a photo of a wind turbine, a flowing stream, a dewy leaf and the recycle symbol.

Representing over 50 mills worldwide, I’m in a unique and (relatively) unbiased position to see the current range of green approaches in the industry. Following is a summary-level overview of some of the things mills do to be more environmentally conscious.

Reducing Impact on Water Sources

Pulp and paper manufacturers are among the largest users of water worldwide. As such, there’s been a major effort to reduce the amount of water used. Through recent innovations, many mills have succeeded. Some have reduced their usage by as much as 30 percent. It benefits both the environment and the mills’ bottom lines to find ways to reduce the amount of water used in papermaking.

The other major effort here is improving purification systems so that the water returned to its source is pristine. This doesn’t improve mills’ bottom lines, but it does much for local public relations and the region itself.

Energy Conservation

Many mills are using their local sources of water to power and generate electricity, thereby reducing their reliance on the national grid (also, local energy sources are more efficient than national ones as there’s a “transmission loss” the further one goes from the source). Some mills can even return energy to the grid, generating more than they consume, while others are purchasing non-polluting wind-generated energy to power all or part of their processes. As in all industries, look for this trend to continue for the foreseeable future.

Forest Certifications

FSC, ISO, PEFC, SFI, SCS, CHPQA — there is an alphabet soup of certification groups, each doing something slightly different to help preserve the environment. The most widely cited is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which promotes responsible management of the world’s forests, among other initiatives. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is similarly driven to ensure consumers that the industry practices good forestry. In general, these certification organizations try to encourage responsible timber purchases in a well-documented, transparent manner to avoid clear-cutting and the permanent destruction of forests.

PCW/Recycled

Recycling is an effective way to conserve resources, minimize waste and ease the burdens put on our forests. Recycled paper can be pre-consumer (typically industrial waste headed directly for a landfill) or post-consumer (derived from paper that has already been in circulation). Using recycled paper reduces the use of virgin wood fibers, keeps these materials out of landfills and consumes less water, fewer chemicals and less energy. Keep in mind however, that fibers can only be recycled a limited number of times (they weaken to the point of being unusable) so there will always be a need for new fiber.

Alternative Fibers

While some mills are ensuring the wood they use is certified or recycled, many other mills eschew trees altogether. As was previously mentioned in this column, there are many “tree-free” alternatives including cotton, linen, kozo, mulberry and bamboo. These fibers are all highly renewable, especially in comparison to trees.  (Bamboo can grow up to two feet per day.)  Also refer to this article.

Just as importantly, many tree-free papers utilize less energy to produce and create fewer toxins than wood-based papers.  Each “alternative” fiber has its own unique benefits — cotton for example is a strong, archival fiber with a history of permanence.  Shakespeare’s first folio exists today because it was penned on cotton fiber paper. 

Summary

Driven by the three factors to promote positive change — legal, economic and altruistic (not necessarily in that order) — most paper mills have made great strides in recent years to produce their papers while reducing impact to the environment.  The law can force mills to abide by standards. Economic incentives (such as using less water and energy and thereby saving money) drive them to exceed those standards.

Regardless of motive, paper manufacturing has become more efficient and less harmful to the environment.  Whether it is a certification system to implement transparency in the sourcing of wood, using tree-free fibers, conserving or using alternative sources of energy or using PCW to produce papers, there is much that has been done to minimize paper’s footprint on the environment.

Please understand that no paper is perfectly "green" and there is still a lot of room for improvement. For this reason it’s crucial to do your homework to decide which paper is best for you.