To the average person, paper may seem like a fairly simple material. It’s flat, comes in different colors, sizes, thicknesses and is sometimes glossy. But paper is a surprisingly complex subject, and when a paper’s environmental footprint enters the equation, the complexity increases exponentially. Specifying the “greenest” paper can be a confusing and often convoluted task, and although the information below may be overwhelming, the good news is that implementation of even the most basic knowledge can make an enormous impact on your environmental footprint. The purpose of this post is not only to be informative, but also to serve as a look at the challenges we (and many others) face as designers to integrate environmental responsibility into our practice.
There are many different paper certification organizations, all whom ensure the paper is made using fibers originating from a responsibly-managed forest. A few of the most common certifications are FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council), SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative), and Green-E. A designer may choose to specify the use of a paper with a sustainably-managed certification because it is presented as a responsible choice, however, planting new trees is not equivalent to saving forests. Plantations of new trees host approximately 90% fewer species than the old growth forests that preceded them. As a result, ecosystems are damaged and biodiversity decreases. If you choose to use a certified paper, try to specify one that protects ancient forests. Another confusing facet is that certified paper doesn’t need to be entirely composed of certified fiber (often labeled as “mixed sources”) in order to gain the certification label. Negatives aside, specifying a paper from responsibly managed forests is a step in the right direction.
Another factor in the paper making process is the use of water. The extremely water-intensive process begins with a slurry mix of about 98% water, and as a result paper manufacturers use more water than any other industry in the world. The production of recycled paper uses far less water, and the use of post-consumer waste (PCW) fibers gives an additional life cycle to paper in addition to keeping it out of a landfill. The higher the percentage of post-consumer waste, the better.
In the past, chlorine bleach was typically used during paper production to whiten the pulp. Chlorine produces dioxin, which is highly toxic and bioaccumulates (meaning it persists in the environment and as a result can be found in the breast milk of today’s mothers). Chlorine-free bleaching processes are more commonly used today, including Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) and the more environmentally preferable Process Chlorine Free (PCF, or TCF – Totally Chlorine Free). Paper bleached using elemental chlorine, still a common practice in developing countries, should be avoided.
Paper production consumes vast amounts of energy typically derived from fossil fuels (coal, gas, etc), producing CO2 emissions and contributing to global warming. An increasing number of paper mills are using renewable energy to power their plants. Choosing a paper that is produced using renewable energy can make a substantial difference in terms of its environmental footprint.
Papers made from alternative fibers are often presented as responsible options, but they too can have caveats. Bamboo, for example, uses very little water, requires no chemicals to grow efficiently and needs less energy to break down the fibers than wood pulp. While these qualities are appreciable, the problem lies in the transportation of the fibers. A majority of bamboo is grown in Asia, and the greenhouse gases emitted from transporting the fibers to the other side of the globe outweigh the benefits. Another appropriate example is cotton. Most cotton paper available uses cotton grown in the U.S., however, conventionally grown cotton is the most chemically dependent crop in the world.
There are even more factors to consider, and the selection of information given above demonstrates that choosing a ‘green’ paper, and furthermore any sustainable material, is a complex system of weights and balances, requiring lots of research. It is of paramount importance for the designer to become aware of these factors and choose the most environmentally responsible material for each project.