Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Spin & Buzzzzzzz

Quite a buzz with Monday’s press release of the new “greener” High Yield Business Paper being marketed by Xerox. Is there true hoopla to be made about this being greener paper? Well, yes there is a considerable amount of reduction in raw material used to produce mechanical pulp, there is no denying that. In fact I have high hopes for mechanical pulp being used for paper production, in place of kraft pulp. But while the press release claims this is some “First-Of-Its-Kind Paper”, I remember another brand that was “flop-of-its-kind” some years back.

Plus any press release nowadays that has the word greener in quotes (third paragraph of the press release) is something for the jaundiced eye.

However, unlike the recent claims of being carbon neutral made by some pulp mills that suddenly want to tout the fact that they burn biomass (“for years we burned biomass, but today we burn biomass and are carbon neutral”), there actually is something here to this mechanical pulp yield issue…a point some in the paper industry feel they haven’t been given credit for environmentally.

Mechanical pulp (ground, thermo-pulverized and similar processed pulp that does not remove lignin) requires less wood input compared to kraft pulp (chemical process pulp that removes lignin). So yes, less trees. And many of the mechanical pulp processes use less chemical brightening; can use alternatives to chlorine compounds such as peroxide, and can use less calcium carbonate, titanium dioxide and other brighteners.

So if a paper user replaces kraft pulp paper with a mechanical pulp paper, there could indeed be significantly less environmental impact. But mechanical paper has to replace kraft paper.

Some mills claim that because they make mechanical pulp they should be given credit for producing an environmentally beneficial product. Well, no--that is what they produce--did yesterday and will tomorrow. If a mill producing kraft pulp suddenly switched to producing mechanical pulp and thus reduced the amount of wood input--well then, they may actually have a point. But similar to the issue of biomass burning mills claiming to be suddenly carbon neutral…there has to be an actual sea-change in production method, not just the sudden “light-bulb-going-off” that they are green and carbon neutral. (Light bulb usually goes off in the marketing department).

So is this Xerox High Yield Business Paper really new? Well, it’s new in that Xerox has found a product they are willing to put the Xerox brand name on. Mechanical pulp office papers have been around for years…18lb tractor-feed computer paper, 18lb. groundwood forms bond…and a favorite of mine some 15 years ago, an office/copy paper called Unity DP, which was produced by the Hammermill division of International Paper (IP).

Unity DP was not only a mechanical pulp paper, it was also entirely recycled content, produced at the IP mill in Lockhaven, Pennsylvania. The paper was made from recycled newspapers and magazines. Prior to IP marketing Unity DP, the method to produce recycled mechanical office paper was developed by Steinbeis Temming of Germany and was marketed under the brand name Recyconomic. Not only was Unity DP high recycled content…it sold for the dirt-cheap price of $18-20 per carton, considerably less than most virgin office paper. It was so cheap that schools, nonprofits and other budget conscious paper users would buy it up.

Sadly, IP discontinued producing Unity DP in 1998 and dismantled the deinking mill in Lockhaven, claiming the product never caught on with the paper buying public. Bizarrely, IP made one last parting shot in the announcement of the brand’s demise, claiming the failure of the brand on the over-zealous promises of environmentalists that there would be a market for the paper. Meanwhile, school districts around the country struggle to be able to afford office paper.

In recent years the kraft pulp office and printing paper market has focused on producing heavier basis weights (24lb in place of 20lb), and brighter white papers (92 GE bright, up from 84 GE standard of 3 years ago). So to see Xerox market a brand that is less bright, lighter weight and made with mechanical pulp is a good thing. But Xerox is hardly the first kid on the block with this. Years ago, Abitibi-Consolidated, a newsprint producing giant, started producing mechanical pulp offset papers that compete with kraft pulp offset printing papers, under the brand names Equal and Alternative Offset. Bowater (which is merging with Abitibi) produces a similar brand, BowHybrid. So the story is not as new as the Xerox press release makes out.

The mechanical paper in place of kraft paper market is growing.

What would be good is if mechanical papers can replace kraft paper used for such low-life-span items such as utility bills, direct mail and other easily tossed items. Maybe someone will produce similar mechanical office paper that can be purchased by cash-strapped school districts. And more important, if recycled fiber can again be the source of some of that mechanical pulp.

Last, to address an issue that plagued the Unity DP brand. Some recycling advocates found fault with mechanical paper being mingled with kraft paper in office paper collection programs. True, mechanical paper will downgrade the quality and usefulness of white paper collected in office paper recycling programs. However, when used for direct mail and utility bills, much of this mechanical paper will end up in residential collection programs, which are a tangled mix of paper grades that are not destined for high-grade deinking mills that need sorted, clean white paper. And used in schools--well most schools I have seen recycle using the same collection methods used for residential recycling collection, not those found in office building collection programs.

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.