Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I'm an environmental idiot!

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 dead.tree.edition@gmail.com. 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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the lucid overview of the "up-cycle" paradox! I too, am a misinformed environmental idiot!

Another example of ""For
every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple--and

We do need good writers like you to help with info overload (I'll try to find time to finish the 61 page AAP report)!

Anonymous said...


As in politics we need a healthy balance. Regarding recycle, we have to keep in mind that the US recovery rate is only 56% and that a healthy portion of the remainder is still finding its way into landfills where anaerobic decomposition results in the release of methane which is 23-25 times as damaging as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As such we need to continue to promote recovery. Next we have to use the recovered paper. Right now China’s voracious appetite and cheap maritime freight account for the final destination of half of the current recovered fiber. With the economic downturn those masses of recovered fiber are going to anxiously await a new home. Hence we are going to have to find economically and environmentally advantageous means of using that resource. Up-cycling may not make sense when you could use it in other down-cycle applications, but if there is market for the down-cycle product, up-cycle is better than landfill.

Anonymous said...

Although I agree with most of your posting, there are some flaws. While I agree the digital is not green, neither are magazines. The average newsstand sell through rate is 33%. That means for every 10 copies that we sell we throw away 7. Yes, it could be recycled, but if it is it is put on a fuel driven truck and hauled somewhere, either a landfill or a recycling plant. That the pulp is re-trucked to a paper mill to be made into paper and then, trucked/retrucked to a printer, which puts the printed magazines on a truck to send all over the country to sell 3 copies our of 10. Then we start it all over again. Does that sound in any way carbon lite?

Several things have to happen and most of all the magazine business must become a no return business. 100% sell through.

Anonymous said...

There is so much more we can do. As a veteran magazine manufacturing director I agree, the post consumer waste percentage has been overrated and held up as the sole metric defining green paper selection for too long. It was promoted so widely because it was a simple concept to understand both for consumers and even most publishing people. But there is nothing easy about the paper industry.

Sustainable forestry practices are very important but let’s not stop there. There is something new and exciting on the horizon that will radically change the North American paper industry to better meet the demand for affordable, quality, environmentally sustainable publication paper.

Have you heard about the wheat sheet?

A Canadian publishing advocacy group called, Markets Initiative is working to accelerate the use of agricultural residues (wheat and flax straw) in North American paper production to protect endangered forests, reduce the environmental impacts of the paper industry and support rural economies.

With the recent success of their trial project with Canadian Geographic printing their June 2008 issue on the new wheat sheet, their efforts shows great promise. Markets Initiative has more than 400 book and magazine newspaper publishers committed to supporting the development and use of papers made from agricultural wastes.

This is green economy infrastructure in the making. More needs to happen to make this a truly viable option. Contact me or marketsinitiative.org to hear more about it.

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree that many people are insitant that recycling is the best thing for the environment. Although it is definitely the right alternative to simply throwing away, many people underestimate the power of reuse. It is for this reason that I praise websites such as FreeCycle and Craigslist. These websites show that reusing can be both economical and earth-friendly. And speaking of fiberboard and such, another great website that I find fits right in with what you are saying is UsedCardboardBoxes.com. Its a place to get boxes that are cheaper than new and promotes the reuse philosophy as well. I used them the last time I moved because I just wasnt able to find enough free boxes on the forementioned website so a good samaritan pointed me to this place. I suggest you take a look. Looks like its right up your alley.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it takes 1.4 tons of recovered paper to make one ton of recycled paper (thereby "wasting" 400-lbs). However, to make one ton of virgin groundwood paper it will take 2.2 tons of fresh wood (wasting 1.2 tons). And, to make one ton of freesheet paper it will take 4.4 tons of fresh wood (wasting 3.4 tons).

When accurately compared, recycled paper production is preferred.

As for energy required, again, you are correct. I would argue, though, that overall energy use is where our focus should be since burning biomass still emits GHGs to the air. What’s more, every ton of recycled paper that displaces virgin fiber paper means that approximately 1 – 3 tons of trees remain standing and alive absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere.

I am part of the steering committee for the Environmental Paper Network (EPN) which we helped form about 7 years ago. Last fall we released the “State of the Industry Report” that you can download from www.environmentalpaper.org. This report will deal in much more detail about some of the points that I just made and many, many more.

- Frank Locantore, Co-op America (Changing our name to "Green America" on 1/1/09)

Anonymous said...

The part that doesn't make sense to me is the identification of the printing paper industry with deforestation.

The paper industry is required to have a long view and be a good steward for their resources. My understanding is that they are the best tree farmers in the world.

Plus there are serious people who believe a primary source of global warming is destroying trees.

It's not like oil or minerals.

Trees are a renewable resource. Trees turn CO2 into oxygen. If I were a paper company, I would make sure the amount of carbon dioxide my tree farms take out of the air would be calculated as part of my carbon footprint.

Who knows..it might turn out to be negative and they could sell carbon credits to the computer business.

Landfills are still a real problem. My bet is that the solution for that is someplace in the world of new non printing paper products.

Trays for McDonalds? Insulation for housing? Construction bricks by mixing with glue under pressure?

Anonymous said...

I think that your right, Michael, if we were talking about paper companies that were in it for the "long view." Unfortunately, many paper companies are publicly traded or have been acquired by investment companies that have the primary (and perhaps sole) concern for turning a profit in the short-term, that is for this fiscal quarter.

The value of the tree (for them) comes from logging it and pulping it into paper, not from letting it grow and store carbon.

The drive for a profit in the short term also drives other environmentally harmful practices such as increasing pesticide, herbicide, and chemical use/production which has climate change impacts. These chemicals are needed for "tree farms" that have one-tenth the biodiversity of the forests that they replaced, and sequester only a fraction of the carbon that the previously standing forest stored.

I think that the market is the best way to address these issues, but the playing field is not level at all. Subsidies and tax breaks are given to road-building and extraction, there are no - or inadequate - financial penalties for polluting, and there are few financial incentives for environmental sustainability in paper production.

Anonymous said...

You know your a enviromentalist wacko dummytard when your disapointed that the book HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY isnt about envirmoenatlists wackos