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Op Ed: Misleading Carbon Footprint Comparisons of Virgin vs. Recycled Paper

3p Contributor | Wednesday July 20th, 2011 | 2 Comments

By Jeff Mendelsohn

Over the last six months, some of the largest virgin fine-paper manufacturers in North America have launched major marketing initiatives holding themselves up as environmental leaders.  They support these claims by postulating that virgin paper manufacturing generates the same or less greenhouse gas emissions than recycled fine paper.  They continue with broad statements suggesting high recycled content is not appropriate for fine printing and writing papers.

How do they arrive at this conclusion? By looking in the mirror.  Two large virgin coated paper manufacturers, Sappi and Verso, performed lifecycle analysis of making virgin paper and recycled paper on their own existing infrastructure which is designed specifically to make virgin paper.  Verso operates integrated virgin paper mills in rural parts of Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota.  Not surprisingly, Verso found that making recycled paper at mills designed to make virgin paper “doesn’t improve the carbon footprint.” They go further to claim “we’ve even seen an increase in carbon emissions as a result of the use of recycled content.”

Sappi also operates integrated virgin paper mills in rural parts of Maine and Minnesota.  Their website’s carbon footprint analysis displays dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions with increased recycled content – again based on making recycled paper at mills designed to make virgin paper. Sappi puts forth a strong message against using recycled fiber in coated paper.

Environmental Superiority of Recycled Paper

These statements mislead the paper buyers by implying that recycled paper is not better for the environment – simply because these mills are not set up to efficiently produce it.  To be clear – making fine paper from waste paper is a more efficient process than making paper from trees, it uses less energy, less water, creating less effluent, and generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions.  These facts are supported by the most comprehensive, independent, scientific lifecycle analysis of the impacts of paper manufacturing, the Paper Task Force Final Report.

The Paper Task Force conducted complete a lifecycle asessment of the impacts of post-consumer recycled paper vs. virgin paper in order to establish guidelines for minimum impact paper purchasing.  Authors included senior executives from Duke University, Environmental Defense Fund, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s Corporation, Prudential Insurance, and Time Inc.  Data came from hundreds of experts, 50+ visits to manufacturing, recycling, and forestry sites, over 400 research meetings, and extensive comments from stakeholders during the drafting process.  Their conclusions:

  • Use paper wisely, engage in source reduction.
  • recycled paper provides extensive, clear, and measurable environmental advantages compared to virgin fiber systems (over the full lifecycle).
  • Maximize usage of paper with post-consumer recycled content.  Recycled paper that performs comparably with virgin paper is widely available for most grades of paper.
  • Source from minimum impact mills which integrate principles of sustainable design into their process, reducing impacts on the environment.
  • When using virgin fiber, source from independently certified, sustainable forests.
  • For the full report, please visit the EDF website http://www.edf.org/article.cfm?ContentID=1689.

In summary, not only do the virgin manufacturers provide an inaccurate perspective on greenhouse gas emissions associated with making recycled paper, they ignore all the other benefits (less water usage, fewer effluents, deforestation and ecosystem destruction, etc) of using recycled paper to support their conclusions.

Sustainability and the North American Paper Industry

While we find it necessary to correct the misinformation being spread in the marketplace, our attention at New Leaf Paper is focused on the ultimate goal: collaborating with all stakeholders to continuously shift the North American paper industry toward sustainability.  This requires a deep understanding of the most sustainable practices available today, the possibilities for the future, conceiving a path forward, and commitment from a critical mass of paper buyers and manufacturers.

As is clear in the Paper Task Force report, the most sustainable paper mills are located near the “urban forest” (sources of recycled fiber) and are designed to pulp wastepaper using chlorine free chemistry to make high recycled content paper.  Only a handful of mills with this design are located in North America. One such mill, FutureMark, located on the outskirts of Chicago, sources 90% of its fiber from wastepaper within a 40 mile radius

Why aren’t there more mills in North America designed to use recycled fiber? Why does United States and it citizens invest so much in recycling only to ship over 60% of all wastepaper off to China and other overseas destinations?  These are perhaps the most pressing questions we face in evolving a more sustainable industry.

Imagine a fundamental shift in our infrastructure toward recycled paper mills, taking advantage of the vast quantity of wastepaper we collect every day.  With greater use of recycle fiber, we reduce demand for virgin fiber, and make possible a future where all virgin fiber is sourced from either FSC certified forests or agricultural residues such as wheat straw left over after the harvest for food crops.  Even with maximum use of recycled fiber, there will always be need for virgin fiber to replenish the inevitable fiber attrition from repeat recycling.  Sustainability investments made by major virgin paper manufacturers are part of the solution.  Sappi and Verso have made significant strides toward reducing their impact, including increased use of FSC certified virgin fiber sources.  We look forward to continuing our efforts and building new partnerships that will move the industry towards greater environmental sustainability.

Jeff Mendelsohn founded New Leaf Paper in 1998 with the mission of driving a fundamental shift toward sustainability in the paper industry.  Through product innovation and his positive vision, he is driving real change in the marketplace.  Jeff’s leadership in making business a force for good goes beyond New Leaf through frequent public speaking, involvement in Social Venture Network, and establishing New Leaf as a Founding B Corporation.  Jeff is a 2011 Henry Crown Fellow of The Aspen Institute.


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  • http://www.BetterPaper.org Frank Locantore

    Thanks, Jeff, for outlining an important contrast. Being in the world of environmental paper for the last decade I’ve seen that progress happens through dialogue. I hope that your article spurs collaboration to solve the pressing economic, environmental, and climate problems we face. My worry is that we in the paper industry and NGO communities hunker down into a debate about who’s right, rather than a discussion about coordinated solutions. Perhaps others will comment in the spirit of collaboration and cooperation, too.

  • http://www.environmentalpaper.org Joshua Martin

    This is an important article for paper buyers to read. Thanks, Jeff.