Weighing up your options in the great green paper debate

Rachel England
Monday, August 15, 2016

Twenty years ago forests around the world were in crisis: more than 200 million hectares were lost between 1980 and 1995 in developing countries alone. In response to this alarming trend, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – a global alliance of governments, NGOs and paper and timber industry representatives – was created in 1993.

Thanks in part to the FSC – and an increasing onus on recycling overall – global deforestation has slowed down significantly, but with the environmental agenda more prominent than ever before, the issue of paper sustainability is no less important.

The narrative focuses on two main paper options: recycled paper, and paper sourced from sustainably-managed forests (although the development of non-wood papers which incorporate agricultural residues such as flax and hemp are gaining traction, albeit slowly). Books, journals and online publications are awash with arguments for and against each, and the conversation is often muddied with apparent facts and figures designed to undermine the counterargument. Is one really better than the other in an environmental context?

The case for recycled paper

On the face of it, recycled paper brings a raft of sustainability credentials to the table. For a start, paper that’s recycled doesn’t end up in landfill, which is good news for the environment and a company’s bottom line – gate fees reach as much as £86 per tonne in some areas. It doesn’t rely on the use of virgin materials, so it essentially makes something from nothing, and despite many claims to the contrary, uses very little in the way of chemical processing. Recycling office paper, for example, uses just water and soap, and relies on ink’s hydrophobic properties to separate it from the paper fibre. 

There’s also evidence to suggest that recycled paper demands much less energy in its production compared with virgin paper. According to Paperwork: Comparing Recycled to Virgin Paper, a report by The Environmental Paper Network, producing one tonne of virgin fibre paper uses nearly 10,000kWh of energy, releases 2,540kg of CO2 gas equivalents and results in 86,000 litres of wastewater. One tonne of 100% recycled paper, on the other hand, uses 6,447kWh, releases 1,600kg of CO2 gas equivalent and results in 44,000 litres of wastewater. 

These are compelling figures, but as Denmaur’s group sustainability manager Danny Doogan says, it’s not always that straightforward. “Comparison needs to be done on a mill by mill basis. Some mills have better integrated and more efficient equipment than others – irrespective of what paper type they produce. And then of course there’s the paper in question. Recycling high-quality white office paper will require different processes and input than recycling – or indeed producing – grades for magazines and newspapers.”

Denmaur acquired the Revive recycled paper brand in 2015 and re-launched the carbon balanced paper range earlier this year (see Star Product, page 33).

Of course, if paper were infinitely recyclable the industry wouldn’t be having this conversation, but it’s not. A sheet of high-quality white office paper can be recycled just seven times before its fibres become unusable (fewer times still if the original paper is a lower grade). So it’s clear that virgin paper still has an important role to play. In fact, according to paper sustainability campaign group Two Sides, it’s estimated that 48% of new wood fibre is currently needed to keep the global fibre cycle going. 

This is where the FSC steps in, assuring printers and procurers that paper brandishing the FSC logo has come from responsibly managed forests that promote regrowth and biodiversity, certifiable through comprehensive chain of custody documentation.

Helpful harvest

Under the FSC’s care, more trees are planted than are cut down, and replanting is undertaken carefully to keep forests and animal species healthy. Trees planted in dense rows might look inhospitable, but research from a number of organisations (including the WWF) has found that a number of creatures prefer such a set-up. Some sustainably managed forests have also introduced certain types of caterpillar to eat the otherwise difficult-to-compost pine needles that litter the forest floor. This attracts birds to the area, whose droppings help fertilise soils, encouraging plant and flower life to thrive, which in turn attracts insects.

Furthermore, trees growing towards maturity absorb more CO2 gases than fully grown existing trees, so in some cases harvesting wood from a sustainably managed forest yields greater environmental benefits than leaving it be.

“The paper industry has historically gotten a hard time for its impact on the environment, but the fact is, because forests are managed as they are, there is very little damage done by paper,” says Jacqui Womersley, director at The Practical Printer. “Bear in mind that paper comprises a miniscule percentage of a tree. If a tree is knocked down the majority of it is used for making houses or for making furniture. The industry is not as wasteful as people would believe.”

Womersely adds that a lack of education around paper production is largely responsible for murkiness within the sustainable paper debate. “A lot of large corporates still aren’t quite up to speed with paper. Some companies, for example, will charge customers extra for sending a bill by post, because they think electronic billing is more sustainable as they’re ‘not chopping down trees’. But that’s a myth, trees are not cut down solely for paper. If that tree is going to be used for building a house, then paper is a by-product.”

As such, she says, the conversation needs to move away from ‘recycled versus virgin’ and instead towards maximising resources overall.

“As it stands, recycled paper is generally more expensive than virgin paper,” she says. “This is simply because there’s less of it available, because we’re not recycling as much as we could – not effectively, anyway. If we can increase our recycling rate, recycled paper would be easier to come by so it would be cheaper, and therefore more attractive in the eyes of procurers. This would reduce demand on sustainable forests, although they’d still have a vital role to play.” 

Nonetheless, it’s a sign of positive progress that this conversation exists at all, says Matthew Botfield, corporate responsibility manager at Antalis, because at least now the industry is in a position to make the comparison from an environmental standpoint – it wasn’t that long ago that recycled papers simply weren’t up to the standard required by many customers, and as such were simply disregarded due to a lack of quality.

“We sometimes have a bit of fun with businesses, asking them to choose which sheet they think is virgin paper and which is recycled, and they naturally try to look for the one that’s a bit more off-white or grainier, but there’s no difference anymore,” he says.

“A few years ago there were technical challenges in achieving a high-quality recycled paper – you’d have to add some virgin pulp to get it up to scratch. Now, though, 100% recycled paper can be of an extremely high quality.” 

Botfield cites Antalis’ Cocoon brand as an example. Photographer Don McCullin’s new retrospective Irreconcilable Truths was printed on the 100% recycled variety, and the paper more than delivered the quality one would expect for such a book.

“Purples and blacks are very difficult colours to print, so we wanted to demonstrate to customers that we could print a very technically challenging piece on 100% recycled paper.”

He adds: “It’s great to actually inspire creative people to choose a recycled product by default because of the quality it affords.”

So, with strong arguments for both recycled and sustainably-sourced paper, and a dependence on both to keep the global paper chain going, which should businesses choose?

“Ultimately, it’s not a case of choosing one over the other,” says Botfield. “It would be like loving the egg but hating the chicken, or vice versa. They’re intrinsic to each other. The best thing a company can do is look at their own environmental credentials to see how they could be improved or fortified, and draw from both recycled and sustainable sources accordingly. However, taking steps to increase the amount of paper that goes to be recycled in the first place is another important measure.”

As Denmaur’s Doogan notes: “The green agenda among the paper industry is growing, and certainly in recent years it’s taken more of a central role in company requirements. It gives them a competitive edge – the general public expects businesses to have environmental objectives. 

“Paper is a very measurable thing, you can quantify how much you use, and by extension how much less you’re using, the carbon emissions associated with it and so on. So, printed media really is a ‘low-hanging fruit’ for a company looking to boost its CSR.

“There’s no single answer. It’s about being mindful of the issues at hand, and maximising the resources we have. It’s in the best interests of the industry to promote a sustainable paper model, after all.” 

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