Friday, September 19, 2008

Mechanical Paper – the New Diet

Dismayed as I was a few years ago that the brightness level of office and printing paper was needlessly being ratcheted-up by the major paper producers, there surprisingly is a positive outcome from that move, one that few are taking notice of. When kraft paper producers started the increase to brightness levels in the mid to low 90s (GE scale), the fledgling uncoated mechanical offset paper producers also bumped up their brightness levels to a point that these mechanical papers now approach the comparable appearance of the uncoated kraft printing papers of just a few years ago.

The unfortunate situation is that there has been little-to-no action by the pulp & paper industry to invest in additional deinking capacity for expanded production of recycled content printing & office paper in North America. And the good intentions of certified virgin fiber does not lessen the demand for timber for paper. However, environmentally speaking, there is good news in that the mechanical pulp process does utilize less wood input (close to half the amount) compared to kraft pulp. Additionally, the bleaching process for virgin mechanical pulp also lends itself to being free of chlorine compound use.

So if I have anything to point to as far as environmentally significant progress in the printing & writing sector of the paper industry in the past 5 years, it would have to be the increased production and marketing of mechanical pulp papers that can replace the use of kraft pulp paper for offset printing, book production, office paper and business forms.

20 years ago, even the infrequent paper consumer was aware of the term “acid-free paper”. The disparaging talk at the time by those in the paper industry was that every grandma with her own lousy poetry book wanted it printed on archival paper—as if their tome would be sought after for eternity. I wish I had a nickel for everyone who inquired about acid-free paper at the time. Many even confused acid-free as some environmental benefit.

There are solid benefits to archival acid-free papers. Being able to view the Declaration of Independence is a good example. National Geographic magazine is famously printed on acid-free archival paper. Recently, I had the clichéd experience of waiting at the doctor’s office perusing a National Geographic from 1971 about the Apollo 15 lunar expedition (We took a motor-vehicle AND golf clubs to the moon! —Way to go USA!). Amazingly that magazine looked as good as the day it was printed. It reminded me that my mother has been saving for me, every National Geographic since the mid-1960’s, neatly stored by year in leather-like slipcases. I’ll take them someday if I ever happen to move into a home the size of the Astrodome. Meanwhile, I’d prefer if National Geo would have continued producing the CD-ROM of all issues back to 1888…it was much more portable and didn’t involve paper.

My point being that one day we will realize that not everything needs to be archival on paper. Certainly the younger set that can text message with one hand understands that. So kraft pulp’s days may be numbered…or at least limited.

In the meantime, paper based communications such as utility bills, mundane office memos…and certainly junk mail…could all be produced on the mechanical pulp papers. There is no reason this material needs to be produced on kraft pulp printing & office paper.

Again, the environmental benefit is the higher yield of paper production to timber input and the chlorine free process. But as I wrote about last year, the environmental benefit can only be claimed if mechanical pulp paper is used in place of kraft pulp paper. Some mechanical pulp paper, such as newsprint or coated mechanical for newsweekly magazines have always used mechanical pulp, therefore no environmental impact sea-change exists for that use.

Abitibi-Bowater is taking the lead on production of this type of paper with its Ecopaque brand printing papers. Xerox branded Hi-Yield Business Paper is an office paper utilizing mechanical pulp. And for the double whammy—mills like Manistique Papers (uncoated paper ) and Myllykoski/Madison (coated paper) produce mechanical pulp papers with recycled fiber.

So I think it is time that mechanical process paper (again - only when being used to replace existing kraft process paper) should take its place alongside recycled content and certified virgin fiber in the dialog about sustainable paper production and use.


David PIneault said...

Dear Gerard,

All good points. I've often wondered why the North American pulp & paper industry didn't use more mechanical pulp to manufacture certain paper grades/products as you suggest.

I think there are two intertwined issues that have limited its use over the years. The first is economic, the second is, unfortunately, historical.

There are several "sub-types" of mechanical pulp. Historically, stone groundwood (SGW) was the mainstay of the mechanical pulping sector. In this process, the chips are simply ground/macerated by large stone grinders. Trouble is, it takes a MASSIVE amount of electricity to run the grinders. Not a winning economic (or enviornmental) business model these days - just ask the folks at St. Marys Paper. There's always hydro - a big electricity source in Canada. But that's subject to the whimsy of weather and the industry uses a lot of water already.

Then thermomechanical (TMP) came along. A bit better on the cost side but not much and it couldn't compete with the brightness levels achieved by kraft pulping.

I think the whole issue comes down to why, from a marketing viewpoint, Americans equate brightness with quality.

The unfortunate historical point is that it may be too late to transition the North American pulp/paper industry to more mechanical pulping. The industry isn't investing (it's divesting) so the construction of a greenfield mechanical pulp mill is just not in the cards. I suppose converting a kraft mill to a mechanical (TMP) mill is feasible just not likely (and probably quite expensive).

You lament the lack of investment in deinking capacity in North America. That's a hangover from the disastrous attempts at that in the late 1990s following Clinton's executive order to print government docs on 10% postconsumer content. Everyone with a $1 and a dream invested in deinking and some 30 plants were either built or planned from 1994 -1998. Alas, only a handful exist today after several ownership changes and 10s of millions lost. Again, this comes down to cost economics and there are only a few examples where a deinking pulp mill can compete with a virgin mill.

Finally, I am always puzzled why so-called environmentalists have come to the not-as-yet-proven conclusion that electronic substitutes are inherently more green than paper. It still takes matter and energy to create a CD-ROM, a lap-top or a flash drive. They don't pop out of thin air. And, it takes electricity to run Al Gore's Internet (you know, the dude who won the Nobel Prize on Global Climate Change). And, electricity, my friend, is generated by oil, coal and, yes, natural gas.

There are no easy answers. The North American pulp/paper industry is one of the greeniest pulp/paper industries in the world. Personally, we should go after "bad actors" in SE Asia, Russia, Central Africa and South America. Go after them HARD by documenting the harvesting practices and refusing to buy products made from illegally harvested wood. That would do far more for the planet than trying to squeeze another nickele from an already strapped and green North American industry.

David Pineault

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