Cleaning away the greenwash: eco papers
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By Laurel Brunner
29 June 2012
Trees are a harvested resource that capture carbon and can be replenished, unlike the oil that goes into plastics or the rare earths used in electronics
We live in a world of greenwash. However, many companies have good intentions and want to be green but may not fully understand what this really means. Making a statement of environmental commitment tends to get confused with actually doing something about it, so greenwash abounds. When it comes to papers, the temptation to promote a product as green just because it has some recycled content can be overwhelming. Unfortunately this does not help the paper industry to improve its image: paper is still too often perceived as a wasteful product. But paper manufacturers and suppliers should be proud of a sustainable medium produced from a natural and replenishable resource. Compared to other energy and resource-intense manufacturing industries, such as electronics, paper has a positive story to tell.
In the last few years the paper industry has really cleaned up its act. For instance, for every tree harvested for paper in Europe, three are planted and young trees capture more carbon dioxide than older forests. European forests are expanding annually and carefully managed to preserve ecosystems. Pulp and paper mills have become much more energy efficient for reasons of economics if nothing else. Some, such as M-Real's Husum plant in northern Sweden, recycle energy produced as a result of their activities back into manufacturing processes or make the energy available to local communities. Despite being close to the Arctic Circle, Husum's citizens can enjoy a heated outdoor football pitch year round because of the energy the Husum pulp and paper plant generates.
Because of its role in carbon emissions control, forestry has become accountable to consumers and governments and in response substantially improved its environmental impact. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) programmes have also helped to push the importance of forest sustainability up the agenda. Environmentally friendly paper products are widely available although they vary enormously in their composition and cost. Recycled materials can be more expensive than some virgin fibre products, however this is changing in line with rising supply and demand.
There are numerous papers on the market that one could consider to be eco-friendly. For instance Tullis Russell's Naturalis from GF Smith is FSC certified and contains 50 percent post-consumer waste. This lovely stock is manufactured in Scotland and guaranteed to run on various ink-jet and toner-based digital presses as well as conventional presses. Sylvancoat is another beautiful paper, one of many made of 100 percent post-consumer waste and manufactured in France.
These examples raise an important consideration: carbon miles. A paper that has to be shipped great distances to its point of use is hardly an environmentally friendly product, regardless of its post-consumer waste content. The supply chain's impact is as important a consideration for a product as the environmental impact of the product itself. But this is difficult to understand and rightly so because calculating the carbon footprint of a paper product is far from simple. This may be why companies tend to try to oversimplify the impact of their products. Environmental science, understanding lifecycle analysis of products and being able to make environmental claims are far beyond the expertise of most people. There is even some question over the eco-friendliness of recycling because the science still lacks broad consensus. So even if a paper includes 100 percent recycled content it may not necessarily be eco-friendly.
The difficulty of understanding what you are dealing with is one of the reasons for the surfeit of greenwash in all industries. Wishful claims and ignorance are the basis for most misinformation, so it can be hard for printers to really know what constitutes an ecologically friendly paper product. Printers who want to be as eco-friendly as possible are better off working with suppliers who have a stated environmental policy, backed up with data. Alternatively they should consider working with small companies close to home, co-operating to minimise the environmental impact of at least one small part of their customers' supply chains.
Ecologically friendly papers are only part of the message commercial printers must provide to customers. Environmental science isn't simple so it's time for all of us to fess up and accept that the best we can do is to make incremental improvements that contribute to a positive environmental impact. When it comes to investing in kit or purchasing consumables, the best we can do is to make sure that what we are told is backed up with facts.
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