Monday, April 23, 2007

Chlorine Free Paper – Caveat Emptor

For crying out loud, I just heard about another group getting jacked on a request for chlorine free paper. Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) paper was presented as filling the bill. This happens way too much. People need to understand this issue.

Here is the simple and straightforward on how this happens. A paper buyer is concerned about the issue of chlorine use in pulp production and would like to minimize any impact by selecting paper using the most benign method to chemically produce and whiten pulp.

This is where it gets tricky. Common paper marketing terminology uses several phrases, Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF), Process Chlorine Free (PCF) and Totally Chlorine Free (TCF).

Ahhh…but all of these phrases have the words “Chlorine Free”…that’s the key…it is the first word in the phrase that needs to be focused on. Too many times paper buyers just hear the “chlorine free” part.

Chlorine Free…sounds good right? But what’s the difference?

Well, here is where I am going to bale on explaining the complexities of the bonding characteristics of chlorine, organochlorines, dioxin, furans, 2,3,7,8-TCDD and 2,3,7,8-TCDF and everything else. If you want a science lesson, this ain’t the place. For the explanations about all that, seek out other experts…maybe the guy who did all those swell Bell Lab science movies I saw in school, like “Our Friend Mister Sun.” This isn’t a science lesson, it’s an ENGLISH lesson.

Starting back in the mid 1980’s there was a lot of concern about the interaction of chlorine and the formation of dioxin in the discharge at pulp mills. The US EPA took some action and much of the North American kraft pulp industry opted to replace existing chlorine gas use with other methods that were more acceptable under guidelines called “Cluster Rules”. The industry’s standpoint is that they were adopting “best available technology” to satisfy the requirements of the Cluster Rules. That best available technology chosen by and large are these Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) bleaching systems.

Now cleaning up any process is going to involve debate about what goes far enough and what is acceptable. In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote a muckraking blockbuster, The Jungle, about conditions in the meat packing industry. Claims that meat, and particularly sausage of the day, contained vermin, feces and even the occasional human body part, caused an uproar. The meat industry could not actually say there was an “acceptable level” of the above mentioned nastiness; the public demanded the industry fully correct the problem. The Federal government passed the Pure Food & Drug Act. Whether the meat industry and the government did or did not do enough about it is debatable. However, no doubt there were consumers who chose to be more selective (maybe even became vegetarians).

So with paper, there are selective customers, some of whom want chlorine free paper. But the industry’s terminology may not meet the public’s understanding of what chlorine free means.

So here is the simple breakdown.

Most of the North American industry that uses timber for feedstock to make kraft pulp has converted to using Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) bleaching processes, usually meaning chlorine dioxide is the active chemical compound used. ECF may meet the standards for acceptable non-detection of dioxin, depending on the scale of measurement, but the chemicals, such as chlorine dioxide, are actual compounds and derivatives of chlorine. There are also varying degrees of ECF, some better than others, such as Enhanced ECF (which involves Peroxide, Oxygen or Ozone in conjunction with Chlorine Dioxide).

Currently, I know of only one timber based North American kraft pulp mill using a non-chlorine, Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) system, however that pulp is exported. In Europe, timber based kraft pulp from mills with actual TCF systems is more widely available.

Process Chlorine Free (PCF) systems are common for kraft pulp in North America at the few mills that produce pulp from deinking, meaning the recycling of recovered paper. Most of the PCF kraft pulp and paper currently available in North America comes out of these deinking pulp mills. However, that does not mean that every deinking mill is PCF. I have certainly encountered one deinking pulp operation that says its system uses Hypochlorite, which is not PCF. PCF would involve Peroxide, Hydrosulfite, Oxygen, or Ozone.

So the bottom line is, if you request chlorine free paper, be sure the paper provider can tell you what they mean by “Chlorine Free”. Ask what is used in the bleaching process.

If they reply Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF), they refer to systems not using chlorine gas, but likely involve chlorine derivatives. And be aware that almost every timber based North American kraft pulp mill is ECF…meaning not much special.

If Process Chlorine Free (PCF), that means the pulp is likely recycled fiber…a good thing. It could also be a combination of TCF virgin pulp and PCF recycled pulp. But just to be sure, it may be good to ask what are the chemicals involved. Peroxide, Hydrosulfite, Ozone or Oxygen are key words to listen for.

Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) paper, right now, would likely have to come from pulp or paper imported from Europe and it would refer to virgin paper.

These situations are particular to kraft papers. Mechanical paper in North America, can be made with pulps, such as BCTMP, which can have peroxide bleaching methods.

There is a lot to know about this to really understand the issue. Actually, don’t go rent “Our Friend Mister Sun”, instead check out these guys for further information:

Reach for Unbleached

Natural Resources Council of Maine


Chlorine Free Products Association (CFPA)

The rampant confusion about pulp bleaching certainly cries out for an overseeing third party program. The above mentioned CFPA does certification of pulp bleaching systems for chlorine free claims.

In the meantime regarding bleaching – ask for specifics about the process – don’t be hoodwinked.


kachwala said...

i am currently using E.C.F. paper in india to make disposable paper cups. can this paper be classified as foodgrade ?

Layla said...

Thanks for the links! Will check 'em out.. Already checked out Conservatree - great info!!
Found some similar info in the book Eco-Friendly Design by Poppy Evans too..

I know you make it sound like Europe is better regarding chlorine-free, still, it's not all so great!! any idea if something like that (sites with good info where you can buy TCF paper/notebooks etc) exists for Europe?

Layla said...

Also, am I right in saying that paper treated with chlorine/chlorine compounds will produce dioxins (not only in production but) also when burnt? (especially of concern where people burn paper along with wood in furnaces or waste is burnt in incinerators?)

Mark Gelazy said...

"The rampant confusion about pulp bleaching certainly cries out for an overseeing third party program." Manufacturer course should monitor such parameters. I work in and constantly confronted with such supervision in practice.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

"If they reply Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF), they refer to systems not using chlorine gas, but likely involve chlorine derivatives. And be aware that almost every timber based North American kraft pulp mill is ECF…meaning not much special" - it's too bad that even in the 21st century nothing can be done to avoid using ECF.