The environmental impacts of forestry and pulp and paper operations have been extensively investigated, reported and in certain cases exaggerated and dramatized for maximum impact, including images of clear-cut areas of forest, mill sites emitting wastewater and air emissions. But, there is a positive side to communicate as well. Over the last three decades, the pulp and paper industry has come a long way in terms of environmental and social responsibility. In Europe and North America forestry practices and pulp and paper mill environmental performance have improved dramatically. Emissions to air, water and landfills are now a fraction of what they were 30 years ago. These positive changes have been due in part to more strict environmental regulations and major investments by leaders in the industry such as modern mills using best-available-technology (B-A-T) .
However, environmental performance is dependent on individual companies and the regions where operations are located. The strictest level of environmental enforcement is typically seen in developed nations and the least strict in developing nations. The same goes for use of B-A-T. For example, large multi-national companies may have relatively modern mill operations throughout the world whereas small or medium sized pulp and paper producers based in developing countries may still be running old technology and be faced with less regulation. One thing is clear: there has been a more significant focus on the sustainability of paper products in recent years. More paper buyers are now evaluating the environmental and social responsibility of their paper suppliers to minimize risks and develop business relationships with producers who are engaged in sustainability.
Below are some basic tips that help define “sustainable paper” based on procurement policies I have had the opportunity to review and key guidance documents such as the WBCSD / WRI Guide on Sustainable Procurement of Wood and Paper-based Products.
1. Reduce impacts over the life cycle of paper.
Paper has environmental impacts at all stages of its life cycle: raw material procurement including forest management, manufacturing of pulp and paper, paper distribution, transportation, recovery and disposal. The goal of sustainable production should be to lower the environmental impact, or the overall environmental footprint, of paper products over their life cycle. Reporting tools such as EPAT , Paper Profile , and the WWF Paper Scorecard assess product performance across a wide range of indicators such as percentage of certified fibre from sustainable managed forests, recycled fibre use, water and energy use, emissions to air and water, solid waste to landfill, greenhouse gas emissions, social responsibility, certifications and reporting.
2. Show regulatory compliance.
Most people expect companies to be in full compliance with environmental regulations. When problems happen, pulp and paper producers should show how they reacted and how they will prevent re-occurrence. Openness and transparency maintains credibility and good business relationships.
3. Promote sustainable forest management and biodiversity.
One way to prove sustainable forest management is for pulp and paper producers to certify forest land and their fiber tracing system using standards such as PEFC , SFI, and FSC . Additional initiatives can include the implementation of a biodiversity strategy or having policies against forest conversion and old-growth forest protection, to name a few. When paper products are labelled with the PEFC, SFI or FSC logos it is a sign of responsible forest management.
4. Recycle and use recycled fiber sustainably.
Recycling paper is very good practice, but sustainable use of recycled fibre means using it at the right locations and in the right paper grades based on economic and environmental considerations. In general, it makes more sense to use recycled fiber in lower end grades such as cartonboard and paperboard products (ex: packaging) than in graphic papers like magazine and catalog grades. Today, over 80% of recovered paper globally is used in packaging grades because the manufacture of these grades does not typically involve de-inking and / or bleaching (i.e. less cost and environmental impacts). Newsprint and tissue paper is also a large user of recycled fiber.
Other factors to consider are transportation distance of the recovered paper (i.e. usually near areas of large population density) and paper quality needs. In many cases, wood fiber may be a more sustainable choice providing a better balance between economic and environmental considerations. In the papermaking process, wood fiber can be recycled an estimated 4 to 7 times, after which the fiber breaks down and becomes waste. In other words, recovered paper is not an infinite source of raw material. To make the global fiber cycle work, a continual input of 35 to 65% of fresh wood fiber is needed depending on the grade of paper manufactured. If no wood fibre were used then degradation through recycling would result in the world running out of paper in within a period 6 to 18 months depending on the paper grade. Visit PaperLifecycle.org to read more on this topic.
Whether you purchase wood based or recycled paper, engagement in recycling of all paper products should be part of your life and your business. Stay tuned for “Part 2” next week where I present the remaining tips on identifying sustainable paper.
Phil Riebel is a senior sustainability advisor to the forest, paper and print sector. He has 23 years of international experience in the sector including senior management positions in industry and consulting. Phil also owns and manages 200 acres of sustainable forest. He can be reached at email@example.com