Stock control

The paper industry has created all sorts of jargon to persuade people that its products are eco-friendly, but how do you distinguish between pulp fiction and processes that genuinely reduce environmental impact? Anne Chick sets the record straight

A growing number of clients – particularly those in the public sector – are specifying environment-friendly paper. Demand for recycled paper is increasing steadily and new products continue to flood the market. Designers faced for the first time with an environment-aware client specifying Green paper stock may therefore be bewildered with the complex issues surrounding paper. Is recycled paper, for example, always grey? Does it cost more? And can printers be more environmentally aware?

Here are answers to these and other frequently asked questions that environment-savvy clients may ask designers.

What is a sustainable forest?

Considerable work has been done by the Forest Stewardship Council and others on this sensitive issue. If you see ‘made from sustainable forests’ on a label, treat it with caution. Replanting trees is not enough in itself. The FSC was set up to encourage the use of sustainable practices in forestry worldwide. Companies with commercial forests can undergo a sustainable harvest certification process overseen by the FSC and they can then use the council’s logo.

Is paper made from wood from tropical rainforests?

No. The paper industry does not normally use tropical hardwoods. Paper is made mainly from softwoods from forests in the Northern hemisphere, with some eucalyptus and other fast-growing species coming from tropical areas.

Does the term ‘wood-free’ mean that the paper is not made from trees?

No. This is confusing industry jargon. In fact, ‘wood-free’ means paper that is free from visible substances occurring naturally in wood that cause the paper to yellow with age.

What are ‘non-wood’ or ‘tree-free’ fibre papers?

Paper made without trees is not a new concept. There are numerous agrifibres ideally suited for paper production, such as kenaf, hemp, agricultural residues (cereal straws, cotton) and reclaimed fabric. Tree-free paper production is rapidly evolving, with new products frequently coming on to the market, mainly in the US. Environmentalists praise tree-free fibre because it yields more pulp-per-hectare than forests, and production also requires fewer pesticides and herbicides. In addition, agrifibers can be effectively brightened using a totally chlorine-free bleaching process.

Does virgin paper use less energy to produce than recycled paper?

There can be no definitive statement on which uses more energy because each forest, producer, vehicle, mill and so on has its own way of working. Broadly speaking, the reprocessed fibre in recycled grades is more efficient in energy terms.

Are the bleaches used in paper manufacture bad for the environment?

There has been much concern about the waste products from bleaching processes used on wood pulp. The paper industry now uses virtually no pure chlorine gas, the bleaching method that is worst for the environment.

Elemental chlorine-free papers are made from pulp that has been bleached using oxygen, chlorine dioxide or other chemicals other than pure chlorine. Although less harmful than using chlorine, it is still considerably worse than totally chlorine-free.

Totally chlorine-free papers are made from virgin pulp that has been bleached without the use of any chlorine compounds at all.

What is recycled paper?

Recycled paper contains fibre from waste paper. However, there is no universal standard. General thinking is to encourage the highest post-consumer recycled content whenever possible, providing that ‘fitness for purpose’ and performance criteria are taken into consideration. Post-consumer waste is paper that has already been used for its final purpose. The use of this type of fibre is most likely to reduce the amount of waste paper going to landfill or incineration.

There are varying definitions of genuine recycled paper. In the UK, Government agencies and businesses now reference the National Association of Paper Merchants, Blue Angel or HMSO (The Stationery Office) accreditation systems as guidelines when specifying recycled paper. In the US the Environmental Protection Agency produces guidelines on recycled paper. The NAPM system states that 75 per cent of recycled paper must consist of waste paper, excluding any mill produced waste. The EPA guidelines require a minimum of 30 per cent post-consumer content for uncoated printing and writing paper, and a minimum of 10 per cent post-consumer content for coated papers.

Is recycled paper always grey?

Many modern recycled papers are visually indistinguishable from 100 per cent virgin papers. The perception that recycled paper is always grey is now outdated.

Does recycled paper cost more?

Prices for recycled printing and writing papers are generally slightly higher than for virgin printing and writing papers, because the economies of scale for recycled paper production tend to be much smaller.

Is recycled paper more environmentally sound than virgin paper?

The production of recycled paper can have significant environmental advantages over virgin paper production, including less impact on forest resources, less air pollution, less water pollution, less water consumption, less energy consumption and less solid waste.

Is de-inking of recycled paper environmentally detrimental?

No. The de-inking process removes applied inks, finishes, glues and other contaminants from waste paper in order to extract the fibre. A detergent is used to float off the ink. Air bubbles are injected into a large vat holding the pulp and these take the ink to the surface, where it is scooped off. It is then solidified. There are a variety of environmentally acceptable methods for disposal of the solid residue, these include the production of cat litter and soil conditioners.

Anne Chick is a reader in Sustainable Design at the Faculty of Art, Design & Music, Kingston University

Latest articles

Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.