Why Recycled Paper Just Isn't Good Enough

Why Recycled Paper Just Isn't Good Enough

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.

DH: OK, so if recycled content isn’t enough, what other factors should buyers be considering and why do they matter?

TP: At Metafore we talk about environmental performance in terms of desired outcomes. A project we’re engaged in now, called the Paper Working Group, has a definition for environmentally preferable paper based on seven desired outcomes a company should consider in their purchasing decisions:

DH: That’s at quite a high level still. Can you tell me more about what specific environmental impacts I should be considering?

TP: To measure progress toward these outcomes, you can use certain measurable indicators. For example, efficient use and conservation of raw materials takes into account fiber efficiency, water use and energy use, as well as recycled content. Conservation of natural systems takes into account the percent of fiber that’s traceable back to the source and whether it’s certified as sustainable. (See the sidebar for the complete set of metrics.)

DH: I would think that different paper processes would yield quite different amounts of toxic chemicals too, right?

TP: Yes, definitely. And where that paper is manufactured has a big impact as well. For instance, in the Pacific Northwest we use a lot of hydropower. In other parts of North America and countries all over the world, they may use more coal or other non-renewable energy sources. And even beyond CO2, you have to look at SO2, solid waste, dioxin, mercury, and so forth.

DH: Good grief. How is a purchaser supposed to make sense of all this?

TP: The first step is to take a holistic view of the products you’re purchasing and look at the life-cycle to be sure that your environmental values are being reflected in your purchasing decisions. Just picking a recycled paper won’t do that for you. Metafore recommends that you begin by having this conversation internally at your company, and then communicating it effectively in the marketplace.

There are also tools that companies can use to measure progress toward their environmental goals in conjunction with their paper supplier -- such as the Environmental Paper Assessment Tool -- EPAT. The EPAT was designed by the Paper Working Group, a project of Metafore.

The EPAT works as a web-based, data-driven assessment tool that allows purchasers to establish their own priorities and then evaluate multiple paper products from different mills. Then the buyer can choose the paper that best meets their values, or at the very least, have a conversation about environmental performance with their supplier. The EPAT provides a framework to have that conversation with their supplier and also helps them make a more informed purchasing decision.

Sidebar: Paper Working Group’s Desired Outcomes and Indicators for Environmentally Preferable Paper

1. Efficient Use & Conservation of Raw Materials
  • Recovered Content
  • Fiber Efficiency
  • Water Use
  • Energy Use
2. Minimization of Waste
  • Recyclability & Compostability
3. Conservation of Natural Systems
  • Source of Fiber
  • Certified Forest Management
  • Sensitive Forest Fiber
4. Clean Production
  • Air Quality
  • Mercury
  • Water Quality
  • Climate Stability
  • Minimum Impact Mill Efforts
  • Solid Waste
  • Environmental Management System
5. Community & Human Well Being
  • Labor & Human Rights
  • Human Health & Safety
  • Stakeholder Impacts
6. Credible Verification & Reporting
  • Public Reporting
  • Independent Verification
7. Economic Viability
DH: With the EPAT, you let the buyers determine what’s most important to them. Isn’t there a right answer here? Why not just give people the relative priorities so they don’t have to figure it out for themselves?

TP: That’s a great question. The EPAT is not a prescriptive tool. It allows a buyer to assign weights to the environmental indicators to reflect their own environmental objectives. Different paper products, be it coffee cups or magazines, have different trade-offs to consider. So to apply a one-size-fits-all value judgment won’t be serving the purpose.

DH: Are there other considerations that people often overlook that you’d like to mention?

TP: Knowing where paper comes from is one. At the paper mill, that includes the pulp supply used to make the paper. This is where certification and traceability comes in. In the past, we didn’t have the systems in place to trace pulp—it was much more complicated than 2x4s— but now we can. Now you can choose paper that comes from a well-managed forest. Again, I think a good strategy is to always consider the source.

DH: OK, but now that you’re not using one indicator—recycled content—you now have many different criteria. You have to make trade-offs, right? What if one paper has a good CO2 rating but a low traceability profile?

TP: That happens in almost every paper purchasing decision. There are always trade-offs. Choosing a particular paper with high recycled content might mean settling for not so clean production. Certification might mean more transportation. So it’s important for buyers to weigh these factors to make an informed decision based on their own environmental values.

DH: I can see how your EPAT might be a great tool for major paper purchasers. But what is the small business owner who just runs down to the office supply store?

TP: Even if you don’t have a relationship with individual paper mills, the process of setting weights to the EPAT indicators and understanding the full range of environmental trade-offs will help communicate your environmental goals and make informed decisions. That could be at the office supply store, as you mention, or your printer or local copy shop.

DH: So what do people who usually just buy paper through an office products retailer do? Are there office products retailers that are integrating this thinking and making this information available to their customers?

TP: Staples (a Paper Working Group participant) has displayed a very strong commitment to the environment and was involved in the development of the EPAT as well. My advice for people who buy their paper through retailers is to choose a company that shares your concerns and values and is transparent in doing so. Staples is one clear leadership company in making environmentally preferable paper available to its customers. If you have a print job go to FedExKinko’s -- another. When we do big print jobs we do it ourselves because Kinko’s is committed to these issues and offer recycled as well as environmentally friendly.

The trick is when a company claims to be "green." Is it a just a claim from their marketing department, or do they have evidence to back it up that tools like the EPAT provide?

DH: Thanks, Tom. This is very enlightening. It's a great example of how we've become more sophisticated in our understanding of what sustainability means.

Photo credit: Flickr user solarnu