Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Recycled Debate: Can We 'Get Beyond the Stereotypical Industry-Environmental Relationship'?

My recent article about discussions between National Geographic and an environmental group has stirred up a debate about recycled paper between two industry leaders.

Publishing pundit BoSacks (AKA Robert Sacks) distributed the article to his 12,000-plus email list on Tuesday with one of his famous "BoSacks Speaks Out" rants, charging that, "Forcing recycled paper into the virgin fiber process of paper making is in most cases counter-productive to a successful green footprint." (He left a similar but briefer comment Sunday on Dead Tree Edition.)

Frank Locantore, director of Green America's Better Paper Project, responded today on Dead Tree Edition with a plea for "a constructive dialogue that has a goal of reaching agreement on metrics to determine what constitutes environmentally preferable paper." Locantore has been perhaps the leading advocate and promoter of using paper with recycled content in North American magazines.

I have corresponded with both men over the past few years and believe them to be people of good will who are worth heeding. (In fact, both submitted insightful comments on one of my first environmentally themed articles, I'm an environmental idiot!.) Therefore, in the interest of encouraging meaningful debate and dialog, I'm publishing both statements in their entirety:

BoSacks Speaks Out
Here's what Bo told his newsletter readers:
There is a debate that is going on in our industry about sustainability that seems like it is mostly for the undereducated and terribly misinformed. If you really understand "green", which most of us don't, it is terribly wrong for the green wanna be's to insist that recycled paper be forced into all virgin pulp for a proper carbon footprint. It is actually in most cases counter-productive for sensible sustainability. The true resolution of this problem, which is admittedly hard to sell, is because of the misinformation and noble knee jerk reactions of the " I wanna do some good, so I want recycled paper in everything crowd."

WRONG! Forcing recycled paper into the virgin fiber process of paper making is in most cases counter-productive to a successful green footprint. It takes more carbon energy to introduce into the substrate what is not necessary or efficient to be there. I am very much for recycling and real sustainability, but I am not an advocate of idiotic programs for the sake of the uneducated who insist the something must be done regardless of the true science. There are great and wonderful uses of recycled paper, some of which is in printed products and each day science is creating more creative uses for the renewable product. If we are worried about a carbon footprint, we shouldn't be using more energy instead of less just so we can put a label on something, which gives the false impression of helping the planet.

The amount of paper in the landfills or out of the landfills is a completely different question. The biggest reason landfills have paper isn't because mills won't use it. The real reason is because people and some businesses are lazy and don't intend to be part of the solution; they are actually part of the problem.

The answer to all this is education, legislation and common sense. We all know that common sense isn't that common, so that leaves us with education and legislation. I have little faith that either is going to happen any time soon, so we will be left with completely wrong headed groups demanding that we need recycled paper in every magazine, when it just isn't true. That logic is a public relations move that confuses or misleads the public about the realities and truth of what a green business and a green publishing house is all about.

Locantore's Response
Here is today's comment from Locantore on the article Green Groups Turn the Heat Down on National Geographic But Up on KFC:
After re-reading Bob Sacks response above, I think that there are at least two points on which we agree. We are both: a) Frustrated with the current dialogue about what constitutes environmentally preferable paper, and b) Concerned by the dominance of PR and greenwashing rather than science in environmental paper decisions.

Really, this is not a bad starting point for a potentially meaningful discussion (once I look past the name-calling).

The past is full of confrontational approaches to force one another's hand on issues. Who among those of you reading this will step forward to help steer a constructive dialogue that has a goal of reaching agreement on metrics to determine what constitutes environmentally preferable paper? Anyone? Buehler?

The Environmental Paper Network (EPN) worked with some of its members to create a fact sheet that articulates why many of us believe – a belief based upon science – that recycled content in all grades of paper reduces energy, water, chemical use, pollution, and solid waste. Contact me if you’d like a copy of the fact sheet and I’ll email it to you (

I really hope that we can get beyond the stereotypical industry-environmental relationship. Don’t you?

In cooperation,
-Frank Locantore

Other Dead Tree Edition articles about sustainable paper and publishing choices include:


Phil Riebel said...

Hi all,

I believethe key issue here is that people keep on focusing on single elements of the paper life-cyle, be it use of certified fiber or recycled fiber, and forgeting how complex the entire supply chain and life cycle really is. My own opinion is that an industry background and in-depth knowledge of papermaking can be very useful in this whole debate.

The only correct way to evaluate the environmental performance of a product, be it a certain grade of paper or any other product, is to deal with measured environmental perfomance data (and not raw materials). This data, otherwise known as key performance indicators, includes the following (as an example):

- Greenhouse gas emissions
- Air quality parameters (SO2, NOx, TSP, etc...)
- Effuent quality (BOD5, COD, TSS, AOX, toxicity, etc...)
- Solid waste to landfill
- Level of certified fiber

..and there are others.

The type of fiber raw material is important but is only one part of the overall environmental footprint of paper. For example, in certain cases, when we switched from Kraft fiber to recycled for certain office grades, the carbon footprint almost doubled due to fossil fuel use by the pulp supplier (of de-inked pulp).

Without virgin fiber, recycled does not exist. We need both and we need at least 40% virgin fiber to mke the global fiber cycle work. Recycled and certified fiber should be considered equally important and needed.

Then there is mill performance, carbon footprint and water footprint. In other words, paper with recycled content could have a higher carbon footprint or water footprint, or higher emissions to air and landfill simply because mill perfomance is not what it should be.

I remember one mill touting FSC and still using elemental clorine to bleach their paper (without proper effluent treatment). This is just one example.

People need to step back and take holistic view. The companies who are doing this right have adopted life-cycle assessment as a tool to evaluate the footprint of their products and design more sustainable products. Paper scorecards are also a good method, like EPAT. WWF has a decent one but again it is biased towards FSC and recycled instead of focusing on performance indicators. The Paper Profile in Europe is very factual and almost entirely based on measured data.

LCA'c should also consider the fact that the recycling loop for paper is an open loop and not a closed loop as assumed by current paper calculator models available on the Internet.

Recycled fiber is an important raw material...but it is just a raw material. It does not drive the environmental performance of products and companies.

I'll never forget sitting across from a paper buyer on the West Coast years ago and explaining all this to her. She said "I don't care...I just want to put the recycled logo on my magazine". Oh well.

Bottom line is that you can over-simplify things and not really make the correct environmental decision...but to some people this may not matter.

Friends of Print and Paper said...

The discussion regarding paper recycling is a fascinating one. Your readers can find out much more about the merits, or not, of recyclng paper here

Anonymous said...

It amazes me that people can get so polarised and confrontational over issues that they clearly don’t understand for themselves. Why do you guys do it? The simple and unarguable fact is that paper (and all wood products) is made of carbon that was once in the atmosphere. The last thing we need to do is to negate the only way we have of reducing atmospheric CO2 by removing the demand for tree growth. New tree growth is the only means we have of reducing CO2, and recycling paper massively reduces the demand for new tree growth.

Resorting to quoting so called ‘fact sheets’ simply recycles (sorry!) the misinformation that is already out there, and does little credit for the readers common sense. The Environmental Paper Network advertisement (it is no more than that!) is littered with deliberately inaccurate misinformation. For example, the ‘waste’ water quoted as being ‘used’ is comprised almost completely of the rainfall estimated to be needed to grow the trees. I know this because I asked them. Last time I looked rain falls anyway, and has no link whatsoever with what it happens to be falling on! The whole document is ‘greenwash’ designed to cover up the fact that paper manufacturers save a fortune by avoiding buying virgin wood pulp. That is a fact not mentioned on the sheet.

I think it is very dangerous when good, convincing writers, (and both these are) take up a stance without any understanding whatsoever about what they are writing about, and without questioning for themselves the simple but incredibly important role of increased new tree growth in the world.

CO2. Remove it from the air, separate out the carbon and bury it, deep. It’s the only way we have of reversing global warming.

Anonymous said...

I thought this discussion was well done by all involved. I think we need to explore all three views and try to put statistical data to support their arguments.

It would be interesting to determine the net difference between CO2 consumed during the recycling process verses the amount of CO@ saved. People forget plantation tree management is a cash crop with a much long harvest time line. I like the argument about saving landfill space.

I have often wondered what is done with the left over sludge and toxic waste from the deinking process. I believe a lot of it is used to manufacture asphalt. My fear has always been the potential for this toxic waste to enter our drinking water and contaniminate our source for water. Replentishment rates are certainly longer for our sources for drinking water than that of growing trees as a cash crop.

Mick Hart said...

Actually Anon 2nd, there is a lot of researched info at and I think you will find answers to your questions there.
Personally I think the argument for avoiding landfill is a kneejerk reaction to general opinion, and not thought through in the slightest. After all, if we are to remove elemental carbon from the atmosphere, where are we planning to put it? Just a thought!

Anonymous said...

Where is there any facts supporting the claim that recycled paper sludge is toxic? Where and who uses it in asphalt production?

Most recycled sludge is disposed of by 2 methods.

1. Direct landfill
2. Burning in Biomass boiler then flyash to landfill.

The simple answer to why recycle? economics. Assuming a mill has integrated recycle and purchased Kraft, I can get 1 ton of recycle to the headbox for $315/ton compared to $1000/ton for Bleached Kraft. This differential is the difference between producing at a profit or loss.

Anonymous said...

Well said by all - the various opinions are indicative of why this is such a diffcult and devisive issue, though in the end all are right in their own way. The key point is that tree harvesting is truly a cash crop and one that can be managed profitably and sustainably in the right hands. Tree harvesting will always be a means of creating profit, whether for energy, paper, lumber, or the various cellulosic fiber products coming into the mainstream. Proper forest management is a far more critical subject than the recycling/reuse issues related to the final forest products.

In terms of recycling post-consumer waste, there are many reasons why this should occur, and the paper industry has been reactive to the various reasons. Economics drive most of these reasons, whether to reduce landfill costs, displace virgin fiber, or ensure end-user needs are met by having recylced products available. Recycled fiber is ideal for a variety of products, including corrugated, newsprint, liner, and uncoated products - waste generated (sludge, etc..) from handling recoverd paper for those processes are relatively minor and high percentages (up to 100%) are common and cost effective for these end uses. Other end uses have much more critial requirements for their fiber sources, including tissue, SC, and coated products. The high use of recylced fiber on these products is both cost-ineffective and requires the most extensive processing and waste generation for their recylced fiber. This recycled fiber is typically the most expensive fiber used by these mills.

The use of recycled products is here to stay and much of the industry will continue to optimize their use going forward. The conversation needs to center around which products make sense to continue this optimization and where it doesn't make sense. If not economically feasible, it will not be truly sustainable - this is true for recycled fiber as it is true for green energy discussions - Make money and the use of recycled fiber will continue long term.

Fopap-jf said...

I have just read this blog and info, and also looked at what FOPAP think. As a until now fan of recycled and its merits, I looks as though I have been greenwashed.
The argument for new tree growth and the burial of paper rather than re using is logical and compelling, especially when you consider new growth as a crop. Virgin paper makes sense and not using paper is far worse than using it.
With so much smooze and spin all in the interests of a fast buck, its not surprising the honest truth is the naturally grown one, once you think on it.
Next we'll find out Google has gotten close to
key government figures and the news industry
taps phones. Anything is possible.

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