Saturday, June 02, 2007

Why Recycled Paper Just Isn't Good Enough

Source: Darcy Hitchcock, GreenBiz

Darcy Hitchcock is the co-founder of Axis Performance Advisors, a consulting firm that helps organizations find responsible solutions that the needs of owners, employees, customers, the community and the environment.

Here, she talks with Tom Pollock, the project manager for the Paper Working Group and the EPAT projects at Metafore, a source of tools, information and innovative thinking for businesspeople focused on evaluating, selecting and manufacturing environmentally preferable products.

Darcy Hitchcock: When people buy paper products, everything from copy paper to toilet paper, they're focused on recycled content as a measure of good environmental performance. The more sophisticated buyers have also looked at the bleaching process. Why is this not adequate if a company wants to "do the right thing"?

Tom Pollock: To get a true measure of environmental performance you have to look at the life-cycle of a product. Considering just a few criteria doesn't make it possible to do that. With paper products, this means understanding environmental performance at the forest level, mill level, how it gets to the consumer, etc.

Recycled content is important -- but it is not the whole picture. For example, climate change is a big issue and choosing a recycled product does not address climate change. CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions have to be taken into account. What is happening at the paper mill and what type of energy is used to make a paper product can be as important as what the product consists of in terms of environmental performance.

DH: Do you have examples of when increasing the recycled content would have been the less-sustainable option?

TP: One example would be buying a recycled paper product made at a paper mill overseas. In the U.S., over 30 percent of recovered paper from your blue bins is being bought by manufacturers and shipped overseas to countries like China. These mills may be modern, but if the energy to run these mills comes from burning dirty coal, that has serious implications.

These mills aren't regulated like paper mills in North America. So, there are situations where buying recycled paper could have a bigger environmental impact than buying paper from a local supplier that doesn't offer recycled content. As in any important choice -- you have to consider the trade-offs.

DH: What about shipping weight. If a magazine publisher chose a lighter weight paper instead of more recycled content, they could save a lot of CO2 from shipping the magazines. That would factor too, wouldn't it?

TP: Definitely. Lighter basis weight papers are a very smart way to go because it uses fiber more efficiently, in storage and well as transportation costs.

DH: How does it save storage space? Does it really make a difference in my file cabinet?

TP: I’d say more at the industrial level. When companies buy paper by the ton a lower basis weight means a smaller paper roll, which requires less space on the shop floor, or on the semi truck. That translates into energy savings because the magazines or newspapers are lighter and require fewer resources to transport and store.

But again, looking at one metric like transportation is important but not the whole story. Time Magazine recently published a study where they found that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions came at the paper mill level.

Also, forest management and certification are important issues, but when it comes to carbon emissions it’s not a significant factor.

Source: "Following the Paper Trail: The Impact of Magazine and Dimensional Lumber Production on Greenhouse Gas Emissions: A Case Study". The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment. Washington D.C., 2006.

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