Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Choice…you choose

I was actually considering letting this one go, however since I am continually bombarded with the question of what is the best choice for the environment when looking for paper, here goes.

Recycled content, certified virgin fiber, or advanced and more benign pulp bleaching methods. Which is best?

Making it easy is a concise discussion of the topic produced by a colleague at Conservatree.

And various other organizations offer their explanations of desirable paper production characteristics, such as the Common Vision for Transforming the Paper Industry, created by the Environmental Paper Network.

So considering these and other long-established criteria that call for recycled fiber to be incorporated into truly sustainable paper production, it disconcerting to see how recycled fiber is given short-shift lately in the growing marketplace for environmental paper.

Recycled fiber is admittedly never going to be able to fully replace the need for creation of virgin fiber. But the sad truth is that less than 6% of the pulp used for the production of paper in the significant printing & writing paper sector (27% of the total market) is recycled fiber. Office paper, printing paper for books, magazines, catalogs, direct mail, advertising and envelopes: little of this sector uses recycled fiber. Simply put, we need more demand for the use of recovered paper to be used in paper production. Recovered paper has been proven to be a sustainable and reliable source of feedstock to create new paper. Mixed with virgin fiber, there is a proven track record that recycled fiber is the cornerstone of sustainable environmental paper. Unfortunately, there is currently an extremely small amount of global recovered paper deinking capacity available to produce the quality recycled kraft pulp used in fine paper production. Hopefully, demand will create incentive for opportunities to expand deinked pulp production considering the renewed interest in the recycled and environmental paper market.

Virgin fiber will also continue to be incorporated into pulp and paper production. For that portion of feedstock source, it is necessary for sustainable production and certification programs to ensure claims of sustainability are adhered to. Currently there are a myriad of competing certification schemes with confusing (to the paper-buying public) acronyms. Common sense will likely win out, consolidating these redundant systems, and credible third-party certification systems will hopefully prevail. The most promising of these is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.

In the meantime, it would be good for paper buyers to continue to focus on the need to increase the amount of recovered (recycled) fiber used in overall paper production. A less than 6% market share for recycled fiber is abysmal if paper production and paper consumption are to be sustainable.

So I was taken aback by last week’s joint participatory press release by Domtar, Office Depot and FSC certifying bodies touting the increased distribution of the EarthChoice Office Paper brand. In the press release, there appears no mention of the word “recycled.” Recycled-content office paper has been the one promising product with increased market share for recycled fiber, notably because office paper is the one portion of the printing & writing segment that is most directly impacted by individual choice.

So “Earth” and “Choice” don’t seem to go together here.

Certified sustainable virgin fiber is important, but not as a total replacement for using recycled fiber. Some make arguments for entirely certified virgin fiber paper, citing the severe lack of deinked recycled pulp available on today’s market. But an argument could also be made for the entire replacement of kraft pulp paper with mechanical pulp paper, therefore avoiding the use of recycled or virgin certified pulp altogether. (Mechanical pulp is almost twice as efficient in resource use as kraft pulp.)

But we shouldn’t make these arguments. The real focus should be on increasing the incorporation of recovered, recycled, deinked fiber into printing and writing paper production. Unlike a statement in the press release mentioned above: recycled fiber is the “gold standard” for environmental paper.

FSC: good guys

Domtar: good guys using certified sustainable fiber (and sometimes recycled fiber)

Mills using deinked fiber: double good guys

Office Depot: good guys, thanks for increasingly making environmental paper available.
(homework for Office Depot: read the blog post from April 23rd to understand why ECF bleached paper is nothing to make special note of in your product listing---there is "green"... and then there is "mandatory."

So, choose to buy paper with recycled fiber, right now that is what the market needs.

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