Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Using Recycled Paper in Magazines Protects the Environment

New Life Cycle Analysis study shows that in 14 of 14 environmental impact categories studied there is an environmental benefit to using recovered fiber as a substitute for virgin tree fiber.

Frank Locantore, with Stella and Schofield
A study commissioned by the National Geographic Society found overwhelming environmental benefits to using paper containing recycled content, it was announced today. Frank Locantore, Project Director of the Green America Better Paper Project, which for more than a decade has helped publishers switch to recycled paper, joins us as a Guest Columnist to explain and interpret the study's findings (which are summarized here).

Recently, National Geographic Society changed course on recycled fiber, walking away from its long held belief that using recovered fiber in its publications has negligible environmental benefit and agreeing to explore recycled paper options. We are encouraged by National Geographic Society’s initial indication that they may begin printing on recycled paper soon. If they do so, they will join the growing list of other magazines that have been using recycled paper for a decade or more like, Fast Company, Audubon, YES!, and Ranger Rick.

As a big fan of Dead Tree and his efforts to foster a dialogue within the industry about this topic, I wanted to share this information with him and his followers to help advance this discussion. As a proud “paper geek,” I look forward to productive conversations with any of you about the best ways to promote environmental paper use that can help the industry prosper in an environmentally and financially sustainable manner.

In the case of National Geographic, Green America and many other NGOs encouraged the venerable publisher to re-examine its beliefs regarding recycled paper. In response, National Geographic hired an independent consultant, ENVIRON International Corporation, to determine if it made environmental sense for them to use recycled paper in their magazine. The results (shown below) clearly indicate that in 14 out of 14 environmental impact categories studied, the production of deinked pulp is environmentally superior to the production of virgin fiber pulp.

ENVIRON International Corporation was asked to answer three questions: 1) Is it better for the environment to use recovered fiber for magazines versus virgin fiber in isolation? 2) If so, can we show that it is better to use recovered fiber in an alternative product? and 3) Do supply limitations exist such that the use of recovered fiber in magazines would displace its use in an environmentally preferable alternative product?

Decision Chart

Question 1: Is it better for the environment to use recovered fiber for magazines versus virgin fiber in isolation? Yes.

In Figure 5 of the study (see below), it is clear that deinked pulp (green) has substantially lower environmental impacts relative to a 50% Kraft/50% Mechanical virgin pulp mix (blue) in all fourteen impact categories.

Relative Impacts

The central environmental question that all paper purchasers must ask is: “Which paper options provide the greatest environmental benefits and fewest negative impacts?” This Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) compared the environmental impacts of paper production between deinked pulp and virgin pulp. When compared to kraft and mechanical pulp, deinked pulp always has a smaller negative environmental impact.

Question 2: Can we show that it is better to use recovered fiber in an alternative product? No.

The fact is that magazine publishers are not choosing between printing on containerboard or newsprint or printing/writing papers for their publication. They are only considering paper options within the “printing/writing” grade.

National Geographic did not want to make the study “mill specific” to the mill they source their paper from, Verso Paper's Jay, Maine mill. Rather, they wanted the results to be applicable for the entire magazine industry. However, this question can only be answered for a specific mill.

Lisa Grice, Sustainability Practice Area Leader for ENVIRON, wrote in her summary of the LCA:

[We cannot determine if there is a better use for recovered paper] because the sensitivity analysis shows that, because of the range of mill specific characteristics regarding fuel mix and energy efficiency, we cannot distinguish between impacts of alternative products produced from any combination of the mechanical or kraft pulp studied. It is possible that a future analysis at the individual mill level may indicate that a specific grade of deinked pulp used to displace a similar grade of virgin fiber pulp for one product may have greater or lesser impact than displacing virgin fiber pulp for another product, but this would be only applicable to the specific mills involved and not more broadly applicable.

While possible, it seems highly unlikely that virgin pulp production could have an overall environmental benefit considering the tremendous environmental advantage for deinked pulp that is demonstrated in this study. ENVIRON’s answering the question, “no,” indicates that it can’t be shown that recovered paper and deinked pulp would be better used to manufacture other products over printing/writing grades.

Question 3: Do supply limitations exist such that the use of recovered fiber in magazine would displace its use in an environmentally preferable alternative product? No.

I should reinforce that no environmentally preferable product has been identified. We all know that some industry stakeholders believe that there is a limited supply of recovered paper available to produce deinked pulp for recycled paper. While true, that “limited supply” is far from exhaustible and nowhere close to being adequately used.

It is difficult to predict how the market will react to increased recycled paper use in the US. Will increased demand create higher prices for recovered paper? Would potential higher prices for recovered paper drive better and more collection of valuable printing & writing paper, separated from the mixed grades where most of it currently ends up? Would increased demand for recycled content printing and writing papers reopen some of the shuttered capacity in recycled mills, potentially enabling even more customers to specify recycled content printing and writing papers? Would the US ship less recycled paper to China? Would more paper companies increase the supply of recycled papers?

What we know is that 9 million tons of printing & writing grade paper remains uncollected each year. And much of what is collected ends up mixed into lower grades that find their way into packaging or other non-printing & writing paper products. We also know the U.S. is behind a number of countries in collecting recycled paper, and that higher recovery rates are possible.

And, we know that National Geographic has their paper made by the Verso paper mill in Jay, Maine – only about 31 miles from Cascades' Auburn Fiber deinking plant.

According to the supply study completed by ENVIRON and done in conjunction with the LCA, Tony Newman, the plant manager for Cascades, indicated that, they “currently have excess capacity, and if demand for paper with recycled content were to increase they would increase their capital investment, produce more, and meet the increased demand.”

From "The Availability of High Grade Paper with Recycled Content for Magazine Use," prepared by ENVIRON, commissioned by National Geographic Society:

[I]t is likely that if demand for magazines with recycled content were to increase, then sufficient supplies of magazine-quality recycled fiber would be available. For a very large magazine, however, the state of world markets is not as important in terms of availability. It is likely much more regionally based. And the fiber they need is already available from a regional supplier [Cascades].

Could National Geographic’s demand for recycled paper simultaneously help boost the profits of Maine’s Cascades plant and reduce pressure on the environment? Based on the study provided by ENVIRON, such a move would benefit the environment, and it is hard to see how sourcing more pulp from Cascades could do anything other than increase profits and provide more employment opportunities for the plant’s community in Maine.


Going back to the questions in the “decision chart” at the beginning of this blog, all the arrows point toward “National Geographic to consider availability and cost of using recovered fiber for their magazines.”

1) The relative environmental impacts for deinked pulp are better than those for kraft or mechanical pulp in all environmental categories studied.
2) It isn’t demonstrated that it is better to use recovered fiber in non-magazine paper.
3) There are currently no significant limitations on recovered paper supply.

We applaud National Geographic’s effort and work to come to this conclusion, and look forward to their use of recycled paper in the near future.

Paper production – both recycled paper and virgin fiber paper – has an impact on the environment. However, using recovered paper has much lower impacts than virgin fiber, which should be the only comparison end users are making when considering paper choices – not pointing fingers at where an imagined limited supply of recovered paper is “best used.” If we want to avoid painful environmental consequences, we must act together so we can all succeed. Unfortunately, we have been going around in circles on this conversation for years – mainly, we talk past one another. I find that tiresome and unproductive, and consider the results of this study as an opportunity to now move forward together.

As Winston Churchill once said, “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

The paper industry as a whole has made some strides towards sustainability, but we’ve still got a long road to travel. We should have an honest conversation about the key metrics to determine how to make and use the most environmentally responsible paper. Collaborative efforts will achieve the best results.

National Geographic demonstrated a good model for collaboration and deserves recognition for committing to a process that was transparent, actionable, and inclusive. Green America, Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Resources Institute were stakeholders throughout this entire process. The participation of all the parties resulted in a study with a high level of integrity and value.

Now the question is whether or not others in the paper and magazine industry can employ the same model of collaboration in order to solve critical environmental consequences associated with paper production and use?

Please contact me if you would like to be part of this conversation:, 202-872-5308.

Related Dead Tree Edition articles:


Holly Budd said...

Please elaborate on the graph proving that recycled is better. There are no units, (what is relative impact?), no title.
What do the light blue bars represent?

Anonymous said...

For decades publishers have been aware of recycled paper benefits. The price and availability was for some of us an issue. Your studies don't take the availability into account. Yes, saving mother earth but you don't study the economics that include jobs, availability, the biz of planting trees, the chemicals used in the conversion process and other considerations that don't appear unstudied aspects of issue.
The government regs. that make the studies less than comprehensive.
Mother earth needs help in the preservation of the ecology and a few other issues. Price of paper can increase the price of printing, often by 20%+. That upcharge, especially with the chemicals used in conversion and diminished profitability which may translate in lost jobs, taxes lost by government and the fluctuation of availability cause many to wonder if recycled paper is a must.
Talk to paper industry and see the issue is not totally addressing the topic which is more expansive than the charts.
Saving the ecology is something most all should and do embrace.

Frank Locantore said...

Hi Holly,
The graphs in the blog are very difficult to see, I know. So, let me direct you to the places in the actual report that will help. I don't think I can embed the link to the study in this response, but if you go to the original post and click on the word, "study," on the first line of the blog it will take you to the full report.

Once there you will be better able to read the graphs and actual report. Section 3.2.1 is on the bottom of page 10 and quantifies the relative environmental impacts between virgin kraft, mechanical, and deinked pulps. Figure 5 on top of page 11 shows the relative impact where the pulp with the largest impact is normalized to "1" and the pulp with the smaller impact is shown as a percentage of "1." Table 4 on the bottom of page 11 is the same info but using the raw numbers.

The "light blue bars" you ask about demonstrate the range of variations if we used data with the "least" and "most" environmental impact for pulp production energy use, fuel input mix, and recycling allocation methodology. View Figure 20 on page 48 and Table 17 on the preceding page of the report.

As an example, in Figure 20, the first grouping compares Total CO2-equivalents. The green, blue, and orange bars compare recovered, kraft, and mechanical impacts, respectively. The light blue within each of those bars demonstrate how the impacts may vary (depending upon pulp production energy use, fuel input mix, and recycling allocation methodology). In the Total CO2-e comparison, kraft generally has more total emissions, but there can be some cases in which mechanical has a higher impact than kraft - that is, the top of the light blue within mechanical pulp's orange bar can be higher than the bottom of the light blue bar within the dark blue bar representing the kraft pulp. In either event, the variations in deinked pulp's total CO2-e always remain lower than the "best case scenarios" for kraft and mechanical.

Good Heaven's this is tough to explain in writing. Please feel free to call me if I've not done a good enough job explaining this. The report attempts to explain it, too. You can reach me at 202-872-5308.


Frank Locantore said...

Hi Anonymous 3/21/13 6:58 AM,

I have to admit that I'm not sure how to respond. If your point is that we didn't consider paper cost in the LCA of the environmental impacts of magazine paper use, you are correct. That isn't one of the ISO criteria.

However, we did take availability into account and there is a corresponding paper about supply that I refer to in the blog that, in essence, says markets are impossible to predict and there is no way of knowing the impact that a magazine of Nat Geo's stature could have if they gave preference to recycled paper use.

But, what we do know is that the Cascades plant - 30 miles from the Verso mill where Nat Geo gets their paper - confirms that they can produce the thousands of tons of deinked pulp that Verso would need to supply Nat Geo with recycled paper.


Anonymous said...

Well said anonymous - remember the basics of true sustainability - triple bottom line from Savitz - planet is kay, but people is important as well as profitability. Recycled fiber is the MOST expensive fiber source for any integrated paper mill - even with a local source of pcw fiber. Also, recycled fiber quality is ALWAYS suspect - ask any papermaker - another inefficiency not accounted for in any study by outside groups.

I've heard rumors of using credit systems for recycled content, similar to certified fiber, which seems much more efficient from a papermaker perspective. Anyone else come across this concept - easier to control, both supply and addition to the system, more options for %pcw, more options on sourcing.... Recycled is here to stay - might as well do it right long term...

Stan @ Chicago Paper Shredding said...

Even though the Cascades plant has the capacity to do the job, Anonymout is still right. Profitability and jobs will always win.

balers said...

Paper recycling refers to the process of converting waste paper, which is considered to be post-consumer waste, and scrap paper, which is considered to be pre-consumer waste, into usable products. Paper recycling involves the separation of fibers to form new sheets or burning of paper waste to create an energy source.

Bill Gould said...

Good to see the NGS changing tack on recycled paper. It's a good sign for the paper industry as a whole.

Priceless Ink & Toner said...

I was wondering if there are any print quality issues. Does the toner/ink fade more quickly on a recycled paper?

Donna said...

I find this an interesting LCA, but a bit misleading by the title of the blog post. Making a general statement about recycled paper being better (or worse)is not possible. As with any LCA, the results are specific to the original parameters, in this case what works best for National Geographic based on their needs and location.

Would also be helpful to know how many mills were included in the inventory, and how was that data provided to USLCI and Ecoinvent (i.e. publicly available, or submitted by the mills themselves).

I think what gets left out of this conversation is that BOTH virgin and recycled sources play an important role. Recycled would not exist without virgin fiber in the first place, and we are talking about a highly renewable resource, as long as it is managed sustainably and responsibly.

Demand for recovered fiber is high, and lower grade products (e.g. cardboard) can use it with lower fiber loss than in higher-quality grades like magazine (because less bleaching is required). I don't think that aspect was included in the scope of the LCA.

I agree there is room to increase the paper recovery rate, but the good news it improves every year. Fixing the quality issue is a whole other story however, with single-stream recycling becoming the norm.

compactors said...

The most commonly recycled types of paper that are recycled are plain white paper, newspaper, cardboard, construction paper, and magazines. Some types of paper are not ideal for recycling. Cardboard, newspaper, and magazines are examples of low grade paper. White and colored office paper are considered to be high grade.

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shredding San Antonio said...

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