Exploring Environmental Sustainability Factors

Many paper buyers shop for “environmentally sustainable papers.” This means that many environmental attributes come together in a production process that does not deplete resources faster than they can be renewed. The key to choosing sustainable paper is “footprints” and “systems.” In other words, favor paper that reduces the production footprint as much as possible and that helps sustain critical systems such as recycling.

Paper’s production footprint refers to how much water, energy, forest fiber, chemicals, and other inputs are needed to make one paper versus another, and how much pollution, greenhouse gases and other harmful outputs are produced. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to compare these factors in different papers. The Paper Calculator (calculator.environmentalpaper.org) – allows you to evaluate the environmental impacts of one paper or of several compared to each other.

Reduced Energy, Water and Greenhouse Gases

The most comprehensive way to reduce several production factors at once is to use recycled paper. Not only does the use of recycled fiber reduce demand on forests, it also reduces the amount of water and energy required for production, as well as the use of harmful chemicals. These in turn reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released both from paper production and from landfills where the paper would have been deposited if not used in recycling. Other forms of pollution are reduced by using recycled content as well, and requiring recycled content in all your paper choices helps to strengthen and maintain the paper recycling system.

According to the Paper Calculator, when a copy paper with 100% recycled fiber is compared to one made with 100% virgin (non-recycled) fiber, the recycled paper reduces:

  • Net energy consumption by 33%
  • Greenhouse gas emissions by 37%
  • Wastewater by 49%
  • Solid waste by 39%
  • Wood use by 100%

Postconsumer Recycled Content vs. Preconsumer Recycled Content

As long as the postconsumer percentage meets at least the EPA minimum standards, it is not always necessary to require that all recycled content be postconsumer. Postconsumer content is essential and key to sustaining the larger recycling collection and processing system. But allowing higher percentages that include preconsumer recycled content also provides environmental benefits.

Certified Forest Fiber

Choosing paper with at least some recycled content is still key to environmental sustainability. When paper contains less than 100% recycled content, the virgin fiber should be certified to have come from sustainably managed forests. There are several forest certification programs. The nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) (www.fscus.org), is considered by almost all environmental organizations to be the most comprehensive and reliable.

For paper to carry the FSC certification label, every point in the forest fiber’s “chain-of-custody,” from trees cut in the forest to the sawmill to the paper mill to the paper merchant and printer, must be certified to comply with the sustainable forest fiber standards. FSC also certifies 100% recycled paper and awards certification for papers that contain both recycled and sustainable forest fibers.

Remember that, even if certified, virgin paper can require up to 4.4 tons of wood to produce one ton of pulp, compared to 1.4 tons of recovered fiber to produce one ton of recycled pulp. Virgin paper also does not benefit from the savings in water, energy and landfill space, plus reductions in greenhouse gases and pollution achieved with recycled content.


Choosing recycled paper is most likely to maximize the best bleaching choices. Paper used to be bleached with elemental chlorine, which combines with organic materials such as wood to release dioxins (carcinogens and endocrine disruptors) and organochlorines into waterways. Now North American paper mills have switched to other bleaching methods, most often using a chlorine derivative such as chlorine dioxide. This Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) process significantly reduces dioxin production, often to levels below detection by government-mandated testing. However, since organochlorines bioaccumulate, creating greater health burdens as they move up the food chain, even the lowest levels of release (still detectable with more sensitive tests) cause concern.

The only North American mills that use totally chlorine free bleaching methods are some (but not all) of the recycling mills. These use combinations of oxygen, ozone and hydrogen peroxide, in a process referred to as Processed Chlorine Free (PCF). Many of the 100% recycled papers are PCF, indicated on the label.

Paper purchasers buying in large quantities on bids can encourage the most environmentally sustainable bleaching practices by specifying PCF or Enhanced ECF processes. “Enhanced ECF” results in reduced use of even chlorine dioxide by requiring that a mill go beyond simple substitution of chemicals for chlorine gas and also use extended pulping processes and some non-chlorine-based bleaching. These differences are not noted on labels, so small-quantity buyers are not able to make this choice without additional research.

Tree-Free Fibers - Agricultural Residue and Agricultural Crop Fibers

Agricultural crops and residues can also be used to make paper products. Agricultural residue refers to usable materials recovered primarily from annual crops as byproducts of food and fiber production, including straw from wheat, rye, and rice as well as other plants, cotton seed residues, bagasse from sugar cane harvesting, and residues from other agricultural crops. Agricultural crop fibers are harvested from non-wood plants that are grown intentionally for tree-free paper or other fiber products, including kenaf, hemp, flax, and bamboo.

Tree-free papers are increasingly being introduced from Asia, as well as from Central and South America. Paper buyers will want to verify these papers on environmental paper information websites such as Canopy’s Ecopaper Database (www.canopyplanet.org/EPD) to ensure that the papers conform with North American purchasers’ expectations. (For example, some overseas papers claim to have recycled content but they are counting materials such as recycled construction wood; this difference may not conform with some buyers’ requirements.)

What about “stone” papers? These are made from calcium carbonate (a form of ground-up marble) bound together with plastics. While the manufacturers say they can recycle the papers if they are returned, there is no viable recycling collection system for them and the plastic is a contaminant in the traditional paper recovery collection system.