Putting pen to paper….

US paper consumption is under scrutiny, but not by government or Greens. Peter Hall reports on the strange coalition of corporate giants – including McDonald’s and Time Warner – which hopes to save the States from tree-eating and is unnerving the paper in

The average American uses 700 pounds of paper each year, and in 1994 20 per cent of all paper produced worldwide was discarded in the US. So in the world’s eyes, the US is not only the land of gas-guzzling cars and unbearably overheated hotel rooms, it’s the tree-eating nation. Yet this most wasteful country demonstrates a remarkable openness to public scrutiny and self-criticism. Paper, the barometer of a nation’s consumption rate, recently became the focus of such attention.

In 1993 six large US organisations, representing $2bn worth of paper purchasing power, joined forces to look at their paper buying habits and establish how they might make more “environmentally preferable” purchases. Environmentally attuned designers looked up in anticipation. Was this collaboration of giants about to create the definitive guide to the Greenest papers? Alarm bells rang throughout the pulp and paper manufacturing industry. The manufacturers’ fear was that the six organisations – which included McDonald’s, Time Warner and Johnson & Johnson – would start pointing fingers, singling out specific mills for praise and condemning others with the stigma “unGreen”.

But the Paper Task Force, as the six organisations called their group, proceeded with a diplomatic caution worthy of the United Nations. At the root of this diplomacy was the catalyst of the project, the Environmental Defense Fund, and its strategy of non-confrontational environmentalism.

Acknowledging that change in the paper industry comes generally as a result of economics rather than ecological ideals, the EDF put together this group of heavyweight consumers to try and instigate change from the customer end. It also set the focus on the entire life-cycle of paper – from foresting through manufacturing to disposal or recycling – rather than just recycling. And it acknowledged that for all paper users, from small design shops to massive consumers like McDonald’s, the choice of a stock is dependent on function, availability, suitability and, above all, cost before environmental considerations.

McDonald’s soft-drink cups, for example, cannot be made of recycled paper for hygiene reasons, but they could be made of un-bleached paper. The question was whether McDonald’s designers could make a cup using darker, unbleached paper that looked as “fun” as the cup made of the bleached paper they were currently using. And whether burger eaters associated McDonald’s food with bright white packaging.

After nearly three years of discussions, 50 site visits to forests, paper mills and recycling centres, and more than 400 meetings with experts from related disciplines, the Paper Task Force has published a 248-page book of its findings. This dense, technical volume, catchily entitled The Paper Task Force Recommendations for Purchasing and Using Environmentally Preferable Paper, provides a wealth of factual information on the varying environmental impacts of the approaches to forest management and paper manufacturing. It also dispels a lot of myths on recycled paper.

For instance, the task force found a recycled grade of paper for every use it examined. It also revealed that fine grades of recycled paper have traditionally cost more because manufacturers have to recoup the cost of investments and because of the volatile price of paper recovered for recycling. As recycled paper ceases to be seen as a “premium” product, the differential between paper with recycled content and paper without will decrease.

Implementation of the recommendations is the next step. The report is being circulated throughout the industry (and has a Web site at http://www.edf.org) and is getting varied responses. Hardline environmentalists argue that its doesn’t point enough fingers. Designers and paper purchasers are welcoming the arrival of a comprehensive and reliable source of information with which to choose a paper and talk with their suppliers. And the paper companies are a little nervous: the report promotes use of less paper and effectively endorses technologies that require considerable changes at their mills.

The ultimate fear is that the government’s guidelines will be influenced by the report. The sense throughout the tree-eating industry is that change is in the wind. Such a public coalition of capitalists under an environmental umbrella would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

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