Sunday, April 22, 2012

What Exactly Is Environmentally Preferable Paper?

Please see also the follow-up to this article, Green Groups Turn the Heat Down on National Geographic But Up on KFC.

To understand why selecting environmentally preferable paper is so challenging for publishers and other print buyers, consider these three recent news items:
  1. National Geographic Society worked with Hearst Enterprises and Verso Paper to help mostly small land owners achieve Sustainable Forestry Initiative certification for well over 1 million acres of Maine forests. 
  2. NGS conducted and published a thorough Life Cycle Assessment of National Geographic magazine’s carbon footprint, which Magazines Canada cited as an example for other publishers to follow.  
  3. Green America’s Better Paper Project has targeted NGS with its “Practice What You Print” protests because National Geographic magazine does not use recycled paper.
So amidst all of the Earth Day hype, Dead Tree Edition asks: So which is it, is National Geographic an environmental hero or an environmental villain? More importantly for those of us who buy paper: What exactly is “green” paper?

Does the use of recycled content, as some claim, trump all other factors – such as forestry practices, carbon footprint, and pollution? After all, there’s no shortage of demand for recycled fiber. If you don’t use it, it’s not going to a landfill; someone else will use it.

Perhaps the real benefit of using recycled fiber is to bid up its value, thereby encouraging more recycling. Or maybe it’s to keep that fiber from being shipped to China.

Paper represents the majority of the carbon footprint and probably a majority of the environmental impact for almost every publisher. But there’s a lot more at stake than how many trees were cut down, or weren’t cut down, to make the paper.

Those trees may have come from a sustainably managed forest, where income from timber ensures that the owner doesn’t convert the forest to farmland. Or the trees could have been cut in the process of destroying a forest to convert it to a more profitable use.

Paper making is one of the most energy-intensive of all manufacturing industries. But the carbon footprint varies greatly from mill to mill depending upon whether they rely on coal-fired electricity and oil-fired boilers or are using sources like hydroelectric and biomass.

Paper mills can be nasty polluters, as the people who live near the Pearl River can attest. In fact, part of Green America’s criticism of National Geographic is that its paper comes from a Verso operation in Maine that is “one of the most polluting paper mills in the United States.” (It also notes that the magazine is "perhaps the inspiration for many in the conservation movement.")

But how do you compare one mill’s pollutants to another’s? I’ve never seen credible, apples-to-apples data for U.S. mills. How do you compare the toxicity of one pollutant to another? And are we talking about air pollution, water pollution, or whether the products contain nasty chemicals, like BPA (as most coated papers do)?

And which is more important, a product’s environmental profile or the environmental record of the company that makes it? In other words, is a paper with 100% recycled content really green if it’s made by a company that is raping the rain forest?

I wish I could give you simple answers – “This paper is green. That paper isn’t.” If you really care about your products’ impact on the environment, and aren’t just trying to appear green, the best thing I can tell you is to do your homework. Learn what "environmental-hero" companies are doing. Compare suppliers’ claims. Ask them why their products are greener than the competitions’. Press them to describe what they’re doing to improve and how you can contribute to those efforts.

Iconoclastic Earth Day articles have become a Dead Tree Edition tradition. Here are the offbeat Earth Day features from previous years:


Anonymous said...

gee, do the lack of comments on this subject indicate overall apathy when it comes to "green" paper companies?? reality is, for a company to compete these days, they need the total package - certified fiber, recycled potential, the lowest carbon footprint possible, and of course the right message about their sustainability program. some have better marketing, some have better stories, and some have both - from what i witness, observe, and sense, sappi has the best story and message out there for CFS, but others are clamoring to catch up.

D. Eadward Tree said...

Anonymous, there have actually been active discussions about this article on LinkedIn groups, especially Print Production Professionals and Print Buyers International

Mark W. White said...

I recommend:
* Looking at each company's environmental disclosures and being wary of those that don't disclose much.
* Ignoring whether recycled fiber is postconsumer or preconsumer. It's important to recycle pressroom waste and unsold magazines (too many of those these days), not just PCW.
* Using groundwood rather than freesheet papers.

We use FutureMark's 90+% recycled paper for some products and Catalyst Cooled (AKA Sage) manufactured carbon-neutral for basis weights that are too low for FutureMark. I sleep well at night knowing I'm being true to the earth and true to my company's (U.S. News) brand.

Anonymous said...

And how was NGS magazine printed? By a sustainable green printer?

Anonymous said...

In response to anon@ 4/24 -400:
Yea and Sappi's largest open market supplier to their coated mill in Skowhegan ,ME is none other that TR Dillon - an absolute hack artist if there ever was one. ( Just google the name and see for yourself)
Lets face it, Sappis "greenwash" is just a glorified example of putting lipstick on a pig.

Frank Locantore said...

I've wanted to post a comment to this blog for a long time now. But, there is so much here to comment on that it has been hard to figure out where to begin. First, I want to thank DTE for repeatedly trying to get a conversation going about this. My hope is that the conversation finds a different venue than on-line commenting. It is really difficult to substantially and meaningfully discuss this issue without the benefit of being in the same room with one another.

My three comments are these:
1. As the Director for the Green America Better Paper Project, I'd like to clarify - we are NOT protesting National Geographic. We are actually in some productive discussions with them and hope to be able to report out on the results in 2012.

2. I don't understand the claim that paper is not going to landfills when over 25% of landfills consist of paper, in fact, that is the largest single component of landfills. One could argue that the increasing demand for recycled paper has made paper's percentage of landfill waste decrease in the past decade. Something we should all be proud of.

3. I agree that there is no simple answer to the question of what paper is "greenest." However, I don't think that it is an impossible question to answer. Can we not work collaboratively as industry, NGOs, govt's, and the public to create a list of metrics that can help determine the environmental "health" of paper? My doctor checks my cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, etc. to give me an analysis of how healthy I am. Can't we do something similar for paper?

Is there any appetite to convene a broad cross-section of stakeholders to discuss and determine metrics that will continuously improve the environmental characteristics of paper? I hope so.

-Frank Locantore

shredding Austin said...

The effects of climate change are also being experience right now and we have to learn how to be responsible in making use materials like that of paper, plastic and even our electronic gadgets.

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Anonymous said...

Don't forget to include discussions with the numerous companies that now license the NG logo. Many of them have no plans to print green but are coasting on the NG reputation about caring for the planet.