I used to think that using post-consumer recycled content to make paper was good, that cutting trees to make paper was bad, and that online editions were greener than “dead-tree” editions. Silly me.
It's taken me years to realize that using post-consumer waste (PCW) in North America to make magazine-quality paper not only does not “save trees”, it’s often actually bad for the environment. The problem is “up-cycling”, the use of low-quality recycled material (such as post-consumer newsprint) to make higher-quality products, such as coated and supercalendered papers.
“Up-cycling of fibers wastes an additional 400 pounds of fiber per ton to make high-quality recycled paper,” states the Association of American Publishers Handbook on Book Paper and the Environment, which does a nice job explaining up-cycling and down-cycling. PCW usually has to be deinked and bleached to make higher-quality papers. There is no such fiber loss when the PCW instead goes into products like cardboard. So insisting that North American mills include PCW in the paper we buy merely bids up the price of that fiber and diverts it from more ecologically appropriate uses. For that reason, at least one publisher has asked its North American paper suppliers not to put post-consumer waste into its paper.
The situation is different in some European countries, where waste streams for office paper (mostly uncoated freesheet) and magazine/catalog paper are kept separate from lower-grade products like newsprint. To get such high-quality recycled fiber in North America generally means using pre-consumer fiber, such as printer waste and unsold newsstand copies.
An argument often made for recycled fiber is that it has a lower carbon footprint than virgin fiber. That is a gross over-generalization that often is simply not true. Pulp and paper mills relying on virgin fiber tend to get their energy from biomass (such as bark) and hydroelectricity. Making pulp from PCW may require less energy, but that energy typically comes from natural gas and coal-fired electricity.
As an environmentalist, it pains me that so much of the guidance the environmental movement has offered regarding paper purchasing, however well intentioned, has been misleading. Take the idea that cutting trees is bad.
Deforestation is definitely harmful to the environment, but there is little correlation in North America between forestry and deforestation. Agriculture and urban development are much larger despoilers of forests.
“To address climate change, we must use more wood, not less,” says Dr. Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace and more recently of Greenspirit. “Using wood sends a signal to the marketplace to grow more trees and to produce more wood. That means we can then use less concrete, steel and plastic -- heavy carbon emitters through their production. Trees are the only abundant, biodegradable and renewable global resource.”
And how about the idea that it’s greener to publish a digital or Web edition than to put ink on paper? There is nothing green about all the electricity it takes to power Web servers and keep them cool. You can buy carbon-neutral paper, but I haven’t heard of any carbon-neutral PCs.
Global climate change is the key environmental issue of our generation, so our green efforts should focus on minimizing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. For me, when I buy paper, that means selecting mills that use earth-friendly fiber (whether from sustainable forestry or from appropriate recycled content) and emit few greenhouse gases, then having the paper transported in the most energy-efficient manner (e.g. rail instead of truck).
Disagree? Then speak up. I am willing to publish other viewpoints as long as they are well-reasoned and well written; you can email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or just click the “Comment” button at the end of this post to share your immediate, unedited response. If we’re going to preserve the Earth as we know it, we need to have more intelligent discussions and debates and fewer knee-jerk reactions and oversimplifications.