A Paper Primer

>> Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Here's something you may not know: "The pulp and paper industry may contribute to more global and local environmental problems than any other industry in the world," according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

I had no idea. Paper seems like such a benign product! It's used for so many good things: making children's artwork, cleaning up messes, wiping our noses and butts...It's a natural, sustainable product, and unlike many other manmade things, paper biodegrades.

So what's so bad about it? In Garbage Land, author Elizabeth Royte explains:

"Virgin papermaking...depletes forests and their biodiversity, it uses more water than any other industrial process in the nation (more than double the amount of recycled papermaking), and it dumps billions of gallons of water contaminated with chlorinated dioxin and a host of other hazardous and conventional pollutants into rivers, lakes, and harbors....Each year, paper factories send 420 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, nitrogen oxides, and other heat trapping gases up through their smokestacks (and emissions are expected to double by 2020). Along with the gases come 38,617 pounds of lead and 2,277 pounds of mercury and mercury compounds."
And according to the NRDC, "Most of the world's paper supply comes from timber logged in regions with ecologically valuable, biologically divers habitat."

I've been wanting to "green" my paper products for awhile now, so here's my checklist for good paper:
  1. Recycled. There are two types of recycled content: post-consumer and pre-consumer. Post-consumer content refers to the paper collected from household and office recycling. In other words, the consumer has already used it once. Pre-consumer content refers to the extra paper scraps produced in the paper manufacturing process. The higher the post-consumer content, the better.
  2. FSC certified. This means that the trees used to make the paper come from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and indicates that a forest is sustainably managed.
  3. Processed Chlorine Free. This means that the paper was produced without chlorine. Chlorine bleaching produces dioxins, which are a toxic substance. (But don't think this means your paper is going to be grey. Most recycled paper is still whitened using other chemicals.)
Other thoughts to consider:
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle...in that order. I used to have the attitude that I didn't have to think about how much paper my family was using because we were recycling it all anyway. Sorry folks, that's the wrong attitude, and I've since seen the error of my ways.
  • Paper can only be recycled four to nine times. After that, the fibers become too short to be used again.
  • Recycled paper products are generally more expensive than their virgin paper counterparts. (This is in part due to government subsidies for the timber industry.) If you don't think you can afford to switch to all recycled paper products, I personally think it's most important to use recycled toilet paper, facial tissues, and paper towels because those products cannot be recycled. But that's just my opinion.
  • When you buy recycled products, it lets the paper industry know that you value those products, recycled paper products will become more readily available, and generally that means they will be cheaper.
The National Resources Defense Council provides an extensive shoppers' guide for paper products, and The Green Guide has created a "Smart Shoppers Card" that you can print out (on recycled paper!) and take with you when you go shopping.

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