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Use Paper, Save the Planet

CCA LiveE | Monday December 19th, 2011 | 1 Comment

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

Photo by Ryan Wilday

By Ryan Wilday

As an industrial designer, and design strategist, I am a prolific user of paper. Whether it is for my latest product design, or synthesis of research, my work area is littered with ideas on letter, tabloid, and Post-its. Until recently I didn’t think this usage could help save the planet. However, paper can be made through sustainable practices that do little harm. We can certainly use and enjoy the richness and resolution of paper without guilt. However, exploring how paper is produced and recycled, I found using paper to write, draw, and print can actually be done for the benefit of the Earth. For that to be true, you and I, as consumers, must know where our paper comes from and where it is going if we want to do our part.

The most important element is the forest where paper comes from. Paper must come from a young tree in managed forests on private lands to be environmentally neutral, or in some cases, positive. Trees on private lands are expected by the owners to create a return. Paper helps make a managed forest monetarily beneficial. A profitably managed forest keeps the land from being developed and depleted. While managed forests are not always biodiverse, a forest is carbon negative while a strip mall is not. Using paper helps forests stand against strip malls.

Private, managed forests keeps our old growth forests stable. According to a study by the USDA Forest Service, the paper and lumber industries plant an average of 1.7 million trees daily and forests have remained largely stable since 1990. Most domestic paper fiber grown in North America is from managed forests. Regulations designed to eliminate the use of fiber imported from nations without forest management laws are necessary to ensure the planting of more forests when demand for fiber requires importation. Use paper that is marked by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to ensure that your usage helps the planet.

Paper harvesting is an energy-intensive activity. Fortunately the paper industry has a carbon neutral energy source on its hands: organic waste. Burning of organic waste is only returning the carbon that was previously absorbed by a living tree. For centuries, the paper industry has used this source. However, there is a growing group of mills ensuring that they offset the remaining energy use to create carbon neutral products through the purchase of carbon credits. This includes Mohawk Fine Papers who supports carbon-free energy through offsets and ensures a selection of carbon free products. They received a 2007 EPA award for their efforts. Other leaders include CTI Paper and Neenah who also provide carbon-free products. Look for such labels as Green-e.org and CN for products that support renewable energy and carbon neutrality, respectively.

Papermaking traditionally has had a large toxic footprint with the use of chlorine to bleach wood fibers. This is toxic to our waterways and all life that depends on them. Chlorine use per pound of paper production is going down. However, the increase in production over time has offset that reduction. Some paper companies have been able to eliminate chlorine use, but not all. A (TCF) tag represents paper that is chlorine-free, so consumers can make smart choices.

Most of us consider recycled paper to have a lower environmental footprint than virgin paper. However, if a mill is searching far and wide to transport in its recycled fiber, it is better for its carbon footprint to harvest from a local, sustainably-managed forest. When it isn’t carbon-efficient to ship paper to a mill, it is ideal to shred and compost it. Paper improves the quality of compost, according to many composting experts. To avoid a transportation footprint, those that don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, or east of the Rockies, should choose to compost. If your city doesn’t compost, trends point to it doing so in the future. In the meantime, hopefully you have room to start a compost bin.

Enjoy paper. Create. Get your point across. Be inspired not only by your creation, but be inspired to learn about where your paper comes from. Make environmentally sound consumer choices, so that your creative process can also help the planet.


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  • Ben

    Interesting article, Ryan. A lot I didn’t know about the current state of the paper industry. Is water another precious resource used in production? Also, what about the printing industry? I guess that’s a subject for another article. Are you familiar with Eco-Print?