The Facts About Paper


We all use paper. We write on it. We read things on it. We wipe our butts with it. So it’s worth asking – what is the most eco-friendly paper out there?

This topic came up recently when I wrote about green travel magazine Wend. I commented that, while it was laudable that Wend was printed on paper certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), I hoped to see a move to recycled paper in the future. This prompted some discussion in the comments section and I thought the topic warranted a follow-up post.

Last year I wrote about how to choose a commercial printer but it’s not something that comes up very often for most people. On the other hand, we all make decisions about paper usage in the home all the time.

Certification methods such as FSC or PEFC (Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) aim to provide assurance for consumers that the paper (or other forestry products such as wood) comes from sustainably managed forests and is not contributing to the destruction of old-growth forest. FSC is the best known certification.

Some proponents of FSC paper argue that it’s environmentally superior to recycled paper because it makes the plantation timber industry economically viable, in turn ensuring that trees are planted and carbon dioxide is sucked out of the air and transformed into life-giving oxygen. They point out that recycled paper could be made from paper that originally came from old-growth forest, effectively only delaying the destruction of ancient woodland by one generation of paper usage.

There are also claims that manufacturing FSC paper is less energy intensive than making recycled paper – a concern that recently prompted the British direct marketing industry to adopt FSC rather than recycled paper as the gold-standard.

On the other hand, environmental groups and independent researchers say otherwise. The truth is when you take the entire life cycle of the product into account, the recycled product trumps in terms of energy usage. While timber plantations are far better than logging old-growth forests, they do have their drawbacks – they tend to be monocultures of either eucalyptus or pine that don’t support wildlife and are often doused in pesticide.

Most crucially, what else are you going to do with the waste paper if there’s no market to recycle it? The main alternative is sending it to landfill where it will release methane – a potent greenhouse gas – as it rots.

The Waste & Resources Action Program (WRAP) in the UK, a non-commercial organisation, has a useful fact sheet on the environmental benefits of recycled paper (PDF). There is also a useful run-down dispelling the myths and misinformation about recycled paper on PPE – a website maintained by the print buyer for Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

The problem is that we are not yet recycling enough to meet all our paper needs. Also, every time paper is recycled, the fibers get shorter, so it cannot be recycled indefinitely. After several cycles the pulp is suitable only for making cardboard or other packaging materials.

Unless we solve these two problems, there will always be a need for some virgin fiber (meaning it’s come directly from a tree and is being made into paper for the first time) in the system. And if you care about protecting old-growth forests around the world, it’s important to make sure that virgin fiber comes from sustainably managed forests. That’s where FSC comes in.

Buying 100% recycled paper is a great option for yourself and the environment – you can buy high-grade recycled paper suitable for almost any usage at a reasonable price.

But buying paper that is, say, 70% recycled and 30% FSC-certified virgin fiber is still 100% ancient forest friendly, and endorsed by the likes of Greenpeace. It turns out that Wend magazine is actually using paper made from a blend of recycled and FSC-certified virgin fiber, which is great news.

Just to confuse matters, the FSC does certify recycled paper – you can even buy 100% recycled paper with the FSC logo. Some people seem to think this means the original paper source (prior to being recycled) came from a sustainable forest but this is a misconception.

Recycled paper made from post-consumer waste comes from thousands of individual households and businesses who have put out for collection all of their waste paper from a myriad of sources. Even if you knew the original soure for all of that post-consumer waste, the most environmentally friendly thing to do at that point is to recycle all of it.

To get FSC certification, a mill needs to be able to vouch for the source of all its paper and, whereas this means drilling down to fine details for the source of any virgin fiber, post-consumer waste counts as a single source.

What FSC-certified 100% recycled paper actually means is that the paper mill has the FSC certification – and they are then allowed to use the name and logo on an agreed percentage of their paper, recycled or otherwise.

I personally think it’s confusing for consumers to have the FSC logo on recycled paper but on the other hand it does mean that you know you’re supporting a mill with good practices across the board.

Of course, you could always buy paper that’s made from other materials such as bamboo, hemp, or even elephant or wombat poo.

Image: Pink Sherbet