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Beyond Recycling: Responsible Paper Purchasing

[Editor's note: This column has been updated to correct the amount of waste paper exported by the U.S., which is about a third, much of which is bound for China.]

Companies can make an enormous difference in the global environment and forest communities by adopting strict purchasing policies.

Large international companies such as Unilever, Staples, Marks and Spencer and Kraft have all made commitments to sustainable packaging.

Thousands of pulp providers, mills, merchants and printers have earned chain-of-custody certification from the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council, and many publishers -- most recently Simon & Schuster, Inc. -- have committed to increasing their use of FSC-certified paper.

In the past year, Nordstrom, Williams-Sonoma and Limited Brands, the parent company of Victoria's Secret, all began using FSC-certified paper in their catalogs and other printed materials.

Through its accredited certifiers, such as the Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood program, the FSC’s stamp and chain-of-custody certification tracks the paper pulp back through the supply chain to make sure that it comes from legal and responsible sources.

Beyond Recycling

Paper recycling is not only green biz, it's wildly profitable biz. ZhangYin, the world's wealthiest self-made woman, aptly dubbed the “Queen of Trash,” made her fortune in paper recycling. Her company Nine Dragons paper, now worth $3.4 billion, buys scrap paper from the U.S. and sells it in China. About a third of the waste paper produced in the U.S. is exported, much of it to China.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based group Forest Trends, about 60 percent of the fiber used to manufacture paper and paper board products in China is derived from wastepaper -- a substantial portion of which comes from the U.S., Europe, and Japan.

From an environmental perspective, this recycling surge is a positive development -- to a point. Recycling does, however, yield some distinctive environmental disadvantages:

o Paper can only be recycled a half dozen times before the fiber starts to disintegrate.
o From a carbon footprint vantage point, the oversees shipping of scrap paper is counterproductive
o The deinking process by which the ink, laser and copier toner and labels, glues, plastic windows, paper clips and other materials are removed from the fiber produces sludge that, if not otherwise used, ends up in landfills.
o China continues to depend on virgin forests for its higher-quality paper, sourcing nearly 40 percent of wood and wood pulp from countries where good forest management cannot be assured.

This last key point underscores the need to ensure that the pulp from which recycled paper is processed comes from sustainably managed forests -- not trees, forests. China's pulp and paper industry is the second largest (after the U.S.), producing 15 percent of the world's paper and paperboard -- nearly 40 percent of the wood and wood pulp used in its manufacture comes from countries where good forest management cannot be guaranteed, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region and, most recently, Africa.

But the need to produce paper responsibly extends beyond China's reach. As the largest market for paper products in the world, the U.S. produces some 90 million tons of paper annually and, in-turn, consumes about 100 million tons. Despite improved technologies for refining post consumer pulp, virgin fiber is still a significant requirement in paper manufacturing.

The Benefit of a Sustainably Managed Forest

Nearly half of the trees cut every year in the U.S. go toward the production of pulp and paper. Many of these trees are harvested from intensively managed plantations that rely on the heavy application of chemicals and do not support the wildlife and biodiversity of healthy forests.

Sustainably managed forests, on the other hand, are managed for the long term, ensuring the well-being of the forest ecosystem, the survival of biodiversity and the protection of habitat. The FSC is a nonprofit organization that sets the world's most comprehensive standards for responsible forestry. FSC-certified forests are not only environmentally responsible, they ensure the health and well-being of forest workers and their communities.

Besides all of their other benefits, forests serve an important role in the fight to combat global warming. Some 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions are produced by deforestation. Because they sequester carbon, forests are known as carbon sinks -- cutting them down releases large quantities of stored carbon.

The area of FSC-certified forestlands has nearly doubled in the past three years to a total of more than 243 million acres (98 million hectares). This increase has propelled rapid growth in the global supply of FSC-certified wood products including paper. Several hundred pulp providers, mills, merchants and printers globally have obtained FSC certification, which allows for increasing availability of certified products to consumers.

The Rainforest Alliance works with companies to review their current purchasing policies, develop goals for responsible purchasing and guides them as they work to meet these goals.

Tensie Whelan is executive director of Rainforest Alliance, which works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods through the transformation of land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior.

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