Is Recycled Fiber the Only Way to Make Paper Products Greener?

Is Recycled Fiber the Only Way to Make Paper Products Greener?

Suppliers of tissue and towel products have traditionally focused on the amount of recycled fiber content of these products when making environmentally conscious purchase decisions.

The current thinking is: If a product is recycled, then it must be good for the environment, and the more recycled content there is, the better.

Certainly, utilizing recycled fiber helps to reduce the demand on natural forests, so it is always good to think about recycling. However, is using recycled fiber the only solution? Are there other strategies that can help us reduce pressure on forests?

While It is Good to Recycle, It is Time to Reduce

Source reduction is a more holistic concept that can be considered during many, if not all, of the purchasing decisions businesses and product users make. Product manufacturers with strategies aligned with this concept strive to change the design, manufacture, purchase and use of materials to reduce their amount before they become waste -- in other words, using less and leaving more for the future.

Man using paper towel dispenser

Because product usage rates and waste generation are tangible outputs that can be measured, innovative manufacturing technologies, product platforms, packaging and dispensing techniques can be developed to help minimize these outputs, thereby enhancing source reduction and reducing environmental impacts throughout the lifecycle of the product.

It's also important to remember that, when it comes to tissue and towel products, the balance of recycled and virgin fiber content may play a role in product usage and waste generation. Often, including some virgin fiber will improve product performance and therefore reduce consumption. This is another important consideration when working to reduce pressure on natural forests and ecosystems.

Sustainable Fiber Sourcing

In reality, recycled fibers eventually wear out and are inevitably lost during the recovery process. Therefore, even at optimal recycling rates, some estimate that we would run out of fiber for making paper products within a few months if virgin fiber was not added to the system.

Given the world's continuing reliance on virgin fiber in combination with the rate of global population and economic growth, the world's forests are under more pressure than ever. Sustainable forest management practices are no longer a "nice to do," they are an economic, social and environmental imperative.

Sustainable forest management aims to ensure that the goods and services derived from the forest meet present-day needs while at the same time securing their continued availability and contribution to long-term development. Among other things, it aims to protect wildlife and sensitive ecosystems through the use of best practices in sustainable forestry and economically viable management of timberlands for sustainable renewal and growth.

Third-party forest certification has emerged as an important tool to measure and communicate the social and environmental performance of forest operations. With forest certification, an independent organization develops standards of good forest management, and independent auditors issue certificates to forest operations that comply with those standards. This certification verifies that forests are well-managed -- as defined by a particular standard -- and ensures that certain wood and paper products come from responsibly managed forests.

The World Resource Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development suggest that purchasers ask several key questions when purchasing sustainable paper-based products:

  • Origin: Where do the products come from?
  • Information accuracy: Is information about the products credible?
  • Legality: Have the products been legally produced?
  • Sustainability: Have forests been sustainably managed?
  • Special places: Have special places, including sensitive ecosystems, been protected?
  • Climate change: Have climate change issues been addressed?
  • Environmental protection: Have appropriate environmental controls been applied?
  • Recycled fiber: Has recycled fiber been used appropriately?
  • Other resources: Have other resources been used appropriately?
  • Local communities and indigenous people: Have the needs of local communities or indigenous people been addressed?

Forestry Management Certification Systems

There are several organizations that certify wood and wood-based products.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international, non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting responsible management of the world's forests. It was founded in response to public concern about deforestation and demand for a trustworthy wood-labeling system. There are currently more than 49 million hectares of FSC-certified forestland in the U.S. and Canada and more than 133 million hectares globally.

The Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) is an independent, non-profit organization responsible for maintaining, overseeing and improving a sustainable forestry certification program that is internationally recognized and is the largest single forest standard in the world. The SFI 2010-2014 Standard is based on principles and measures that promote sustainable forest management and consider all forest values. It includes unique fiber sourcing requirements to promote responsible forest management on all forest lands in North America  SFI certification also extends to the market. When they see the SFI label on a product, consumers can be confident they are buying wood or paper from responsible sources -- whether it is reams of paper, packaging or two-by-fours.

The Canadian Standards Association's (CSA) National Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) Standard CAN/CSA-Z809, developed according to an internationally recognized and accredited standards development process, is based on the international Helsinki and Montréal processes. It incorporates Canada's own national SFM criteria and links adaptive forest management to forest certification. As of the end of 2009, about 49 percent or 72.8 million hectares out of 149 hectares of certified Canadian forests had been certified under the CAN/CSA-Z809 SFM Standard.

Sistema Brasileiro de Certificacao Florestal (CERFLOR) is a voluntary Brazilian program of certification conducted by Inmetro (the National Institute for Industrial Standards and Quality) with the participation of stakeholders. Cerflor has been recognized internationally by the PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes), which is the largest forest certification scheme in the world in terms of areas certified.

Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC) accounts for more than 225 million hectares of certified forests that produce millions of tons of certified timber to the marketplace, making PEFC the world's largest certification system. This umbrella organization endorses national and/or regional forest certification standards that meet its rigorous sustainable forest management criteria.

Chain of Custody

Chain-of-custody certification tracks possession and transfer of wood fiber products from the forest to the consumer, including all stages of processing, transformation, manufacturing and distribution. Products are independently audited by an accredited certifier as meeting chain-of-custody requirements of the standards above and are labeled as such. The label is a signal to consumers and businesses that the fiber in the product comes from well-managed forests or other approved sources, providing confidence that the raw materials used to make the products are sourced to required standards.

Making Product Choices

Taking into account a more comprehensive set of considerations is necessary when making environmentally responsible decisions regarding fiber-based products.  These considerations span the range from recycled content to source reduction and responsible virgin fiber use.

There are many indications that decision-makers are becoming more sophisticated in their choices. In fact, three-quarters of Greenbuild 2009 attendees who were surveyed by Kimberly-Clark Professional indicated that "reducing consumption of resources" was the best way to achieve environmental sustainability, and 63 percent said that finding more ways to reduce overall consumption is the most environmentally beneficial building practice. Only 25 percent said that increasing recycling or the use of recycled materials would be the best way to achieve environmental sustainability.

Underscoring the interest in reducing the consumption of resources, the survey uncovered strong support for source-reduced tissue and towel products. These can be products that not only help users consume less overall, but that also are made using more efficient manufacturing technologies, more efficient use of water and energy, and less total packaging. When asked to select the number one factor for choosing bath tissue and paper towels, 42 percent of respondents picked: "Products designed with source reduction in mind, which reduce environmental impact at every stage in a product's lifecycle, so people consume less and waste less." Only 15 percent of respondents chose: Products with 100 percent recycled fiber content.

Seventy-eight percent of those polled at Greenbuild agree with the main tenet of sustainable fiber sourcing: Trees are a renewable resource that can be used responsibly for production of towel, tissue, and other paper products.

Using products made with sustainable fiber may also help facilities achieve Green Building certification. In fact, the United States Green Building Council's (USGBC's) LEED 2009 For Existing Buildings (LEED-EB) rating system requires buildings to have in place an Environmentally Preferable Purchasing policy before the building can be LEED-certified. Buildings can obtain one LEED-EB point for purchases that consist of at least 50 percent FSC-certified paper products. Buildings can work toward a second LEED-EB point by using sustainable janitorial paper products, including microfiber tools and wipes. 

Another LEED-EB point can be obtained, in part, by meeting the minimum requirements of one or more of the following programs relating to washroom paper products:

  • EPA Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines for Janitorial Paper.
  • Green Seal GS-09 for paper towels and napkins.
  • Green Seal GS-01 for tissue paper.
  • Environmental Choice CCD-082 for toilet tissue.
  • Environmental Choice CCD-086 for hand towels.
  • Janitorial paper products derived from rapidly renewable resources or made from tree-free fibers.

Savvy facility managers and building owners could use their LEED certification or their sustainable fiber sourcing policies as a marketing tool to improve tenant satisfaction, tenant retention and tenant acquisition rates.

While they may not be as trendy as "100 percent recycled fiber" products, tissue and towel products made with responsibly sourced recycled and virgin fibers can help people use less, waste less, and leave more for the future. With a little bit of legwork, businesses can find suppliers that share the belief that environmental protection is critical to business success and that integrate environmental considerations like sustainable fiber sourcing into all aspects of their operations and product development.

Lisa Morden is the global sustainability leader for Kimberly-Clark Professional

Images courtesy of Kimberly-Clark Professional.