Ancient forests are still being logged for timber products, including paper, destroying entire natural ecosystems.
The UK is the world's third largest importer of illegal timber.
Paper pulp production is responsible for a rapid global expansion in intensively managed tree plantations, some of which are established by clearing natural forest or other precious habitats.
Just one tonne of recycled paper saves approximately six mature trees and 3.3 yards³ of rapidly diminishing landfill space.
The pulp and paper industry is one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases. It uses vast amounts of water and energy and produces signficiant amounts of pollutants and landfill waste.
Recycled paper is the greenest option overall – it uses up waste paper and its production requires less energy and fewer chemicals.
GENERAL IMPACTS OF PAPER MAKING
Paper takes many forms, and the chemicals and energy used in its manufacture, and the by-products it creates, all vary. Even recycling processes aren’t standard.
But paper-making does have some general environmental impacts:
- It's energy intensive – The pulp and paper industry is the world’s fifth largest industrial consumer of energy, according to Worldwatch Institute. However, some producers use the by-products of the pulp production process as bio-fuel, virtually eliminating their carbon dioxide emissions.
- It uses huge amounts of water – but less if recycled within the factory.
- Coatings, fillers and optical brighteners eg. china clay, calcium carbonate, titanium and starch must be extracted, processed and transported, and all this requires energy. If these products are eventually recycled, the residue from the fillers and coatings is usually sent to landfill, although it's sometimes used as soil conditioner and occasionally even for road building.
- It generates large amounts of pollutants and waste – whilst waste treatment, especially in European mills, has improved in recent years, many mills still release a variety of pollutants into the surrounding air and water.
Some of these are greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change. Others can affect the more immediate surroundings that local people and wildlife rely on and contribute to air pollution, acid rain and the degradation of freshwater and marine ecosystems.
The paper making process also generates large amounts of solid waste which must be disposed of, most notably the sludge from the fillers, coatings, wood fibres etc.
Recycled versus virgin paper
Recycled paper is the greenest option overall – it uses up waste paper and its production requires less energy and fewer chemicals. Plus, it provides a market for paper waste in the UK and encourages more recycling.
But there will always be a need for some virgin fibre – recycled fibres can only be reprocessed 6-8 times before they become too broken up to bind together.
Why use recycled paper?
It uses less energy and creates fewer emissions than virgin paper
The process of felling trees, transporting them for processing, the pulping and manufacturing processes, and the distribution of the resulting paper uses a large amount of energy – mostly from fossil fuels. Recycled paper requires only a fraction of this processing, using between 28 and 70% less energy.
It supports UK recycling companies and provides a market for UK paper waste
Nearly all virgin fibre used in the UK is imported, and some waste paper exported, so it makes sense both environmentally and economically to support home-grown paper recycling schemes.
It reduces the amount of waste paper going to landfill
In the UK it is predicted that we will run out of landfill sites during the next decade. Landfills will be replaced by incinerators whose toxic fall-out has been proven to be harmful to human health. Read more
In addition, as paper biodegrades it produces the greenhouse gas, methane.
It is the only way to be sure that your paper hasn't had a detrimental effect on any forest environment
Only a small (although increasing) amount of the virgin fibre used in the UK is from truly well managed forests. To be absolutely sure that your paper has not had a detrimental effect on any forest environment, use 100 per cent recycled paper.
What is recycled paper?
Superficially it’s quite straightforward: waste paper and board is collected, sorted and then purchased by paper mills to be re-used.
However, there are different definitions of ‘recycled’ within the industry – paper can be called ‘recycled’ when only a percentage of the fibre is actually recycled. There is also a big difference between post and pre-consumer recycled waste paper (see glossary). Look out for the percentage of post consumer recycled waste when choosing a paper.
Generally speaking, fibre for re-use is pulped, screened to remove unwanted items such as staples and adhesives, and de-inked – it may or may not then be re-bleached using hydrogen peroxide which is also used to bleach virgin fibre. The extent to which each of these processes is undertaken depends on the desired final product and the condition of the waste paper.
The quality of the original waste fibre will dictate how it is re-used – good quality white waste will be re-used in high quality recycled or part recycled papers; at the other extreme, low-grade recycled packaging will be re-used (again) for packaging materials.
Cleaning recycled fibre
The detergent sodium hydroxide is used to remove ink from paper. Sodium hydroxide is a main ingredient in soap and is also used commercially for washing fruit and vegetables and in some cases the residual detergent/ink ‘sludge’ is harmless enough to be used as a fertiliser.
Sometimes the ink is diluted, rather than removed – and then spread evenly throughout the sheet of paper by a process known as dispersal. Sometimes the ink is dispersed in such a way as to create a deliberately speckled effect. Depending on the quality of the paper to start with, the end result can vary considerably.
Bleaching is then often required to achieve a whiter paper (as with virgin fibre). This is done using the relatively harmless hydrogen peroxide (also found in hair bleach and tooth whitening kits).
The greenest option is to go for unbleached, off-white recycled paper as it will have undergone less intensive processing.
SUSTAINABLY SOURCED PAPER
The term ‘sustainable forestry’ is often used to mean simply that the trees are replanted after harvesting.
However, standards of plantation management vary from badly managed and ‘uncertified’, right through to generally well managed FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified plantations.
This is why the term ‘sustainable forestry’ is so meaningless – it is applied to all plantations regardless of their status.
In broad terms, a true sustainably managed forest is one that provides a renewable, economic supply of timber from source that sustains native wildlife, plants and non-commercial trees.
Some countries see forests only as a resource, and sadly in many parts of the world, highly biodiverse, ancient forests are still cleared and logged illegally. Ancient forests are shaped by natural events over many centuries - replanting these forests will not get them back.
Although there is a role for managed plantations, many are managed simply for maximum yield and may be limited to just one or two species, all of the same age. These monocultures require fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides and support few indigenous species, resulting in rapidly diminishing bird, animal and insect populations. Read more
The best way to ensure that your paper is from a well managed source is to look for FSC certified paper.
“The effects of [bad] forestry management are the most significant cause of the endangerment of species in Finland.”
Finnish Ministry of the Environment, October 2000
With so many questionable ‘green’ claims out there, it’s important to stick to a certification system that’s trusted and watertight.
In 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development agreed that in order to be truly sustainable a forest would have to be managed according to three criteria:
Of the forestry harvested in the UK only a small percentage goes into paper products, so most virgin fibre is imported. Some of this imported fibre will be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), but most of it will be uncertified.
FSC certification is widely accepted to be the most stringent. Unlike other schemes, the emphasis is on tracking fibre all the way from the forest to the end use, so the user can be certain of the fibre’s origins.
Many new environmental certification schemes have been launched by forest and paper companies – such as the Nordic Swan label, but Greenpeace and WWF don’t regard these schemes as watertight. For example, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification Schemes (PEFC) – an international forest industry initiative that acts as an umbrella for many smaller national forestry schemes – “does not comply with the basic requirements for forest certification”, according to WWF’s Forests for Life campaign. (Source: Green Futures) Read more
Until the PEFC redresses the balance, FSC is the way to go.
How watertight is forestry certification?
The Forest Stewardship Council is an international, non-governmental organisation dedicated to promoting responsible management of the world’s forests.
The number of FSC-certified forests is growing rapidly, covering 84 million hectares worldwide – about 10% of the world’s production forest.
Forests are inspected and certified against the 10 principles and criteria of Forest Stewardship which take into account environmental, social and economic factors. The FSC is the only certification scheme endorsed by NGOs worldwide, although recently even the FSC has proven not to be completely watertight.
In addition to forest management and certification, the FSC Chain of Custody tracks the timber from the forest to the paper mill and then to the printer.
If a printer is FSC certified, then the end product can carry the FSC label ensuring that there has been no contamination between FSC and non-FSC material. However, the Chain of Custody is broken if the manufacturing mill or printer is not FSC certified.
See our Printfinder to locate an FSC certified printer.
The FSC Principles of forest stewardship include consideration for:
- Indigenous people’s rights
Respect for the legal and customary rights of indigenous peoples to own, use and manage their lands, territories and resources
- Community and workers’ rights
Forest management must maintain or enhance long-term economic and social well-being for these groups
- Environmental impact
Conserve biodiversity and make sure forest retains its ecological balance and integrity
- Monitoring and assessment
The condition and productivity of the forest, and the environmental impacts of management, must be monitored
- Maintenance of high conservation value forests
Operations must maintain or enhance the special attributes of these forests
Further information about the FSC's 10 principles and criteria
There are three FSC labels available:
FSC Mixed Sources
In 2005 the FSC introduced the Mixed Sources label. The majority of FSC certified materials featured on Lovely as a Tree carry this label.
The Mixed Sources label states that at least 50% (increasing to 70% in 2009) of the virgin fibre must come from FSC certified forests with the remaining percentage from controlled sources. Recycled waste can also be included up to a maximum of 90%.
Controlled sources exclude:
- illegally harvested timber
- forests where high conservation values are threatened
- genetically modified organisms
- violation of peoples’ civil and traditional rights
- wood from forests harvested for the purpose of converting the land to plantations or other non-forest use
An FSC certified paper mill must be able to prove the origins of all the fibre it uses in its FSC products.
The FSC also has also recently introduced a recycled label. To carry this label a material must contain a minimum of 85% post-consumer waste and up to 15% pre-consumer waste and must be made by an FSC certified mill.
100% FSC paper made by a certified mill.
See our Paperfinder for FSC products.
It's almost impossible to say whether the use of non-wood fibres has any environmental advantages over wood fibres due to the huge variety of sources of non-wood fibre available. These range from crops grown specifically for paper fibre such as flax, kenaf, hemp and jute; to agricultural residues such as straw; industrial residues from cotton and even natural, uncultivated crops such as bamboo.
For instance, trees have a slower lifecycle and only require pesticides every few years rather than annually, so are able to support a greater biodiversity and less likely to have a negative impact on water quality. However, the pulping process for many non-wood fibres requires milder chemistry and less energy than is needed for wood fibres.
The use of agricultural residues might seem like an excellent way to use a waste product, however there are problems with the residues produced from these species in the pulping process that have yet to be solved. However, in the UK, Bioregional Minimills have been developing cleaner technology to make use of waste straw.
One thing we can say with certainty is that more research is needed.
A simple guide to what happens to the newspapers and magazines we recycle
MYTH: Chlorine is used to bleach recycled paper to make it look clean and white.
MYTH: Recycled papers are usually poor quality.
MYTH: Recycled paper is more expensive than virgin paper.
This is when the end product has reached the consumer, been used and then recycled.
Also known as post-industrial waste, this describes printers’ waste such as off-cuts and unused copies which may have been over-ordered.