Key elements of sustainable paper procurement: Part 1

By | February 18, 2011

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 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

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4 thoughts on “Key elements of sustainable paper procurement: Part 1

  1. Richard Dannenberrg

    There is a very interesting side effect of the reduction in the demand for paper that is occurring in Georgia timberlands. Because the value of timber has decreased (especially pulpwood), timberlands are being converted to other agricultural production. Currently, the demand for (and price of) cotton is high and there is the beginning of a trend to harvest timber prematurely for pulp and convert the land to cotton production.

    In this case, forest sustainability is potentially negatively impacted by some of the efforts that were initially intended to assure it.

  2. Phil Riebel Post author

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for the comment. I totally agree that there should be more incentive to keep forest as forest. Well managed forests have so much more environmental and social value than a cotton field. Forests are needed to combat climate change, protect watersheds and groundwater, provide habitat fo numerous species, and for people to enjoy. The US needs to adopt good long-term policy that supports a thriving forest products industry and sustainable forest management, including biomass energy. Most forests will not be protected so we need to manage them sustainably for the long-term. We need to look outside te US at countries like Finland as a model (for example).

  3. Roger Dziengeleski

    Hey Richard,

    Another benefit of extending the paper life cycle through recycling is the carbon sink created by successive products. Once in a landfill some of the fiber decomposes and can be released in the form of greenhouse gases. So let’s all keep recycling that 4 to 7 times. Also, don’t feel guilty if a book sits on a shelf for a long period of time. That book is actually an “atmosphereic carbon storage device”.


  4. Roger Dziengeleski

    Hey Richard,

    One more comment about Forests. Finch Paper is one of the few, if not the only, paper manufacturer that still employs a team of professional foresters. Although we don’t own forest land we provide forest management advice to landowners throughout the Northern Forest, located right in our back yard, to insure that the forest land owners have access to professional sustainalble forest management advice. We especially target small owners who otherwise have trouble getting pofessional advice. Our certifications are from both FSC and SFI (and we support the American Tree Farm System as well) and as a certified group manager, make these certifications available to large and small landowners alike.

    By the way, I would mention that all of our foresters are members of the Society of American Foresters, and that I feel very honored to be serving as that organization’s president this year, the international year of the forest.


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