Thursday, September 20, 2012

Environmental Impact of Paper Goes Way Beyond Cutting Trees

Almost any discussion of paper manufacturing's environmental impact focuses on cutting trees and protecting forests. But five news reports in the past week provide a reminder of other environmental issues surrounding paper making:

  • An Environmental Protection Agency study of a former paper Montana paper mill found “potentially dangerous levels of dioxins, heavy metals and other hazardous chemicals,” according to the Missoulian. The results could lead to the former Smurfit Stone property becoming a Superfund site, as well as concerns about what would happen if a levee on the property failed.
  • The site of an abandoned paper mill in Tennessee has been proposed as a Superfund site because of PCB and dioxin contamination. 
  • A trial began this week on charges that a lawyer duped buyers of a New York paper mill by not disclosing it had been declared a Superfund site. (Are you noticing a pattern here?) 
  • International Paper received regulatory approval for an extensive upgrade of the wastewater treatment plant at its Bogalusa, LA mill. A failure of the plant under previous ownership last year caused a discharge of black liquor, an especially nasty and infamous pulp byproduct, killing hundreds of thousands of fish and fouling the Pearl River. 
  • A power outage last week at a Glatfelter mill in Pennsylvania caused the release of 6,000 gallons of pulp and contaminated water into a nearby stream. 
Regardless of how it sources its fiber, can a paper company be considered green if it fouls waterways, spews high levels of toxins and greenhouse gases into the air, uses carcinogenic additives, or reveals as little as possible about its environmental impact? No, not when there are competitors using best practices to minimize emissions, operating mills that are nearly carbon neutral, switching to safer materials, and going way beyond what the law requires in reporting their environmental practices and measurements.

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Papyrus said...

Thanks for bringing attention to this fact, Mr. Tree. I agree. It kind of reminds us why the trend of paper marketers calling paper, "renewable, recyclable, sustainable," misses a huge portion of the impact. And its a fact that's lost when the same people say that reducing wastefulness in paper consumption doesn't help the planet because, "paper comes from trees and trees grow back." Assuming for a moment that's sufficient permission to print your emails to read them, it misses all the other ingredients and impacts of paper, some of which you highlight.

The Environmental Paper Network wrote a Common Vision for Transforming the Paper Industry 10 years ago that for the first time brought together the multitude of issues to be tackled to shift the marketplace to responsible production and consumption. Cleaner production is one of the four pillars of this vision.

Another one that could be added to this list, is the recent court decision forcing the EPA to review its Clean Air Act regulations for kraft pulp mills for the first time in 17 years. See:

I do take issue with the assertion that any pulp mills are operating "nearly carbon-nuetral." Pulp mills use so much energy, that even the ones with a majority of their energy from biofuels still emit large amounts of ghg's from fossil fuels. Additionally, the claim that bioenergy is carbon-neutral automatically, fails to consider the latest science which clearly erodes that theory and shifts the burden of proof on that idealistic assumption to the mills. said...

Agreed that the impacts of mills are wider than carbon dioxide and forestry.
However, after having been disgusting polluters of air and watercourses in the past, there has been a steady reduction if mioll discharges since the 1960s. Since about 2000, only a few bad actors in the US and Canada cause significant air and/or water pollution.
They bring disrepute on the industry.
The the current issue of public opposition to the mills due to
1) The bad actors
2) Far too many lies having been told by management in the past
3) Some current lies and half truths
4) Ignorance on the part of some protestors (mostly honest, but still dead wrong)