Monday, February 23, 2009

Rethinking the "Green" Magazine Issue

Finally! A magazine publisher is doing a “green” issue on paper that truly is environmentally friendly.

The usual approach to environmentally themed issues is to use paper with a bit of recycled content without regard to any other environmental issues or whether the recycled content is being used appropriately. But for its April issue, the “Energy and Environment Guide”, U.S. News & World Report has actually put some thought into (and dollars behind) making the issue’s paper earth friendly.

As a result, all of the issue’s body stock will be on carbon-neutral paper with fiber that has been certified as being sourced from sustainably managed forests, the publisher says. The body stock will be Electracote, a coated-mechanical paper from Catalyst Paper’s Port Alberni, British Columbia mill. Dead Tree Edition has already noted the product’s ill-advised name but has no qualms about Catalyst’s low emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that have been linked to global climate change. Its environmental record has earned it recognition from the World Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups.

U.S. News has been looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint," said Mark W. White, the publisher's Vice President of Manufacturing (and a member of my LinkedIn network.) "We applaud the efforts Catalyst has made to reduce its carbon footprint while maintaining the quality of its paper.”

Like most other Catalyst products, normal Electracote has a low carbon footprint because the vast majority of the mill’s energy comes from such carbon-neutral sources as hydroelectric dams and forestry waste (bark, for example). A groundbreaking study from The Heinz Center, “Following the Paper Trail,” found that a majority of American consumer magazines’ carbon footprint came from energy used to make the paper.

U.S. News is going a step further by participating in the Catalyst Cooled program, which was pioneered by Rolling Stone magazine but has had few other participants. Through Catalyst Cooled, U.S. News pays a small premium to offset what few greenhouse-gas emissions occur at the mill to make the paper. The publisher has been using Catalyst Cooled for more than a year, but this is the first time the paper will appear throughout an entire issue of the magazine.

Catalyst is careful to call Catalyst Cooled paper “manufacturing carbon neutral” because the offset only covers mill emissions, not what occurs elsewhere, such as transport to and from the mill. U.S. News says it minimizes the transport-related emissions by having paper shipped to its printer in full railcars.

Carbon offsets have been controversial because some are of questionable environmental value and because they have been seen as a license to pollute. But Catalyst has one of the best records in any industry for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. And the offsets pay for a park-reforestation program that clearly results in carbon sequestration.

What about recycled content? Here is U.S. News' answer: “Catalyst is one of the largest manufacturers and users of post-consumer recycled pulp in North America. All of that pulp goes into lower-brightness products like newsprint. The yield (the amount of recycled pulp that ends up in the paper) is more than 85% for such products but would be less than 70% for the brighter coated paper that will be used in our April issue.” In other words, U.S. News avoided the environmentally questionable practice of upcycling.

What U.S. News does not mention is that Electracote uses far less virgin fiber than any allegedly eco-friendly coated freesheet with 30% post-consumer recycled fiber. That’s because of its light weight and the use of mostly mechanical (groundwood) pulp, which consumes far less wood fiber than does chemical (kraft) pulp.

And for those who advocate recycled paper because of its supposedly lower carbon footprint, here’s an interesting tidbit from a recent Catalyst financial report: “The Company’s overall carbon footprint increased in 2008 with the acquisition of the Snowflake mill, which is located in a heavily fossil fuel-dependent jurisdiction and whose primary energy source is coal.” The Arizona mill makes newsprint solely from recycled fiber.

There’s a place for both recycled content that is used appropriately and for virgin fiber from sustainably managed forests. Catalyst’s approach is a good model to follow – processing lots of recycled paper into pulp, using that pulp in the most environmentally appropriate products, obtaining most of its virgin fiber from sawmill residuals, supporting sustainable forestry, working to reduce its energy consumption, and trying to get more of that energy from carbon-neutral sources.

Is Catalyst really more virtuous than most other profit-driven paper companies? (And when was the last time you saw “profit” and “paper company” in the same sentence?)

Enlightened management is part of the story, but for the most part its location in British Columbia shapes its environmental outlook. Native peoples there have been practicing sustainable forestry for centuries. Hydroelectric power is abundant. Vigorous debates and boycotts shook its paper and forestry industries in the 1990s. BC has probably the strictest forestry regulations in North America. And there’s little debate in the province about whether global climate change is real – not when a plague of beetles spurred by unusually warm winters is chewing up its stunningly beautiful forests.

“Recycled content” may be an easy sell to consumers. But let’s hope more publishers (and other users of paper) start doing something about their carbon footprints as well.

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