Is it me, or is the variety and complexity of paper choices getting a bit confusing? There’s certified (by various bodies), recycled content (various types), bleached vs. chlorine free, and more. There’s just so much to take into account when making a purchase. It’s nearly as overwhelming as trying to choose cereal in the supermarket. (Do we really need an entire aisle devoted to a single breakfast food? But that’s for another blog.).
I wonder if so many options can make it difficult for consumers to make a decision, because we certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from making a sustainable choice. Especially when you consider that — even with recycling — more than 30% of our municipal landfill waste in the U.S. is composed of paper. In addition, papermaking remains the third largest industrial use of fossil fuels, and the number one industrial use of water per pound of product.
Just think about it. From the moment you get up in the morning until the moment you go to bed, paper touches your life. From tissues to toilet paper, to cereal boxes, to mail and packaging, to our printers and desktops, to the book you leave on your nightstand. We live in a world of paper. So much for the paperless society.
To help sort through the clutter, I’ve included below a quick primer on paper options. Basically there are three things you need to take into account when considering your paper: 1) pulp; 2) process; and 3) certification.
Pulp. Unfortunately most of the pulp used in the manufacture of paper still comes from unsustainably harvested trees, making it important to choose paper made from recycled content. Post-consumer recycled content is best because it does not rely on virgin trees. Post-industrial recycled content (often labeled “recycled content”) is excess material from manufacturing that has been used to make new paper. Though not as good as post-consumer content, it is still better than non-recycled paper.
Process. Another important criteria in choosing paper is whether or not it was processed using chlorine. There are three chlorine-conscious paper options. Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) is usually made from non-recycled pulp that contains minimal chlorine. Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) is virgin pulp that contains no chlorine. Processed Chlorine Free (PCF) paper is made from recycled pulp, which may contain chlorine remnants, but is not produced with additional chlorine.
Certification. In the United States, there are currently three bodies that certify paper as being harvested from sustainable sources: The Forest Stewardship Council is considered by many to be the most rigorous and most protective. The Sustainable Forest Initiative, originally created by members of the American Forest & Paper Association, a paper industry association, also provides certification. Finally there’s the lesser-known American Tree Farm System. There is a certain amount of controversy surrounding which system is best. Meridian Institute completed a Comparative Analysis of FSC and SFI, the two best known systems in the United States. as did the International Standards Organization. Just to make it a bit more confusing, certified paper may or may not have recycled content. So check for that as well.
Bottom line is that any of these choices is still better than paper sourced from virgin and unsustainably managed forests. You can learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about paper and certification from Yale’s Program on Forest Certification. And I know I’ve already mentioned this before, but the report on the state of the paper industry from the Environmental Paper Network is definitely worth a read.
Happy (electronic) reading!
P.S. I never considered that my propensity (read: thriftiness) for buying used and borrowing books was a sustainable choice. But maybe I was wrong…
Consultant and writer on sustainability and the environment
Helping you leave a green footprint on the world…