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.

Next Page: A look at more certification services.