An Option for a Cleaner Environment
The Paper Issue: Alternatives and Solutions

Remember – to use paper, any paper, is to have an impact on our environment!
Our greater goal should to be to promote reduction of consumption.

Note: Shel Horowitz’s book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, contains a great deal of other information about the interplay of marketing and social change, and ways to move a business toward both environmental and economic sustainablity.

(In this paper, references to recycled paper mean recycled paper made with high quantities of post-consumer waste and either unbleached or whitened with more benign methods – this type of recycled paper is available today. The common 10-20% post-consumer recycled paper bleached with chlorine gas is not considered recycled paper in this treatise.)

Perspective of Concern

Today in the U.S., we consume an average of 800 pounds of paper per person per year – 200 billion pounds. A huge amount of this ends up in landfills. Forty percent of our garbage is paper. From 1970-1991, consumption of paper in the U.S. more than doubled.

Trees as a source of paper fiber have only been used for a little over a hundred years. It was the rapidly increasing demand for paper brought about by the printing press that necessitated huge amounts of a consistent fiber, the niche which a seemingly endless supply of trees could fill. As we know, the end may be in sight. Processing these trees requires the use of harsh chemicals.

On April 11, 1996, a train derailed near Alberton, just west of Missoula, MT, causing one of our nation’s worst chlorine accidents. The chlorine was made by one of the nation’s largest paper companies and was bound for paper mills. This accident highlights that the handling and transport of a harsh chemical like chlorine is a constant danger to all of us. People in Alberton now have the direct experience of the indirect impacts of paper use. It could happen anywhere.

Let’s look at the issues of bleaching, recycling, alternative fibers and pollution reduction. I will propose some viable solutions that can reduce your environmental impact of using paper.

Paper Is Not All Paper

Papermaking is a dirty business. Paper mills are among the most polluting of industries. The paper industry is the greatest energy consumer in our country. The U.S. paper industry’s reliance on chlorine-intensive bleaching places this industry as the worst water polluter in the world.

But paper is not all paper – it can be up to 40% fillers, coatings, and chemicals, and making it requires a great deal of water, energy, and chemistry. Although the recycling of waste paper requires less of all these, the chemicals used and subsequent waste produced varies greatly. Pulp mills discharge around 35 tons of toxic organochlorides each day. One toxic byproduct is dioxin, a type of organochloride which results from the combination of chlorine and other substances. Pulp and paper mills using chlorine for bleaching produce up to 1,000 of these chlorinated organic compounds. Only about 300 of these have been identified, including dioxins, furans, and PCBs.

Chlorine is not the only problem. One list of pulp mill contaminants identifies more than 40 items including cadmium, lead, mercury, phenols, PCB’s, 2,3,7,8-TCDD (dioxin), and a variety of other harmful pollutants. Reduction of both the chemical input and output (pollution) must be our goal.

Many of these substances cause cancer or genetic damage, are persistent, and accumulate in the environment. Toxic emissions from paper mills are concentrated in fish, then are further concentrated when those fish are eaten, whether by a bird or a person. Studies indicate potential impacts to human reproductive and immune systems. All this so we can have all the paper we want.

Chlorine and Other Options

Purity. Virginal. Cleanliness. What does white mean to you? In paper it can mean the use of hazardous chemicals and toxic pollution. Mutation. Cancer. Death. Throughout the industry white paper is achieved by the use of chlorine. It is the use of this one chemical that has raised so many questions and put the pulp and paper industry on the defensive.

The culprit is the bleaching process. There are 3 basic types: chlorine gas, chlorine derivatives (e.g. chlorine dioxide or sodium hypochlorite), and hydrogen peroxide or oxygen. Bleaching paper with chlorine is harmful to our environment. Period. Several recycled paper mills in this country are using chlorine derivatives which do not promote the development of organochlorides as readily. While it is still a problem, a hypochlorite bleached paper is a better choice than one bleached with chlorine gas.

In other countries chlorine-free paper mills have been operating for many years. Sweden (a world leader in pulp production) has a law requiring the elimination of organochloride emissions from paper mills by the year 2000. A similar law takes effect in the province of British Columbia in 2002.

The better options are bleaching without chlorinated compounds or not bleaching at all. There are a handful of white papers out there which are bleached using hydrogen peroxide (or other oxygen-based methods). For many uses from draft paper and note pads to tissue products and packaging we probably need no bleaching at all.

Much confusion exists about bleaching terms that are being misused with little understanding or explanation. It is important to be able to make the distinction. Many (maybe most) print shops and paper salespeople do not understand them.

Totally chlorine free (TCF) means there is no chlorine or chlorine derivatives used to make the paper, which means the paper must come from virgin fiber. Elementally chlorine free (ECF) means no chlorine gas, but chlorine derivatives are used, which is a process that is used in many recycled papers and tissue products. ECF is often misunderstood to mean TCF.

Process chlorine free (PCF) or secondarily chlorine free (SCF) means recycled paper that is processed back into paper using no chlorine or chlorine derivatives – paper that is not bleached or paper bleached with an oxygen-based system. The waste paper being recycled was most likely made with chlorine the first time around. This method melds the ability to use our waste paper with processing that is chlorine free. The problem with chlorine is the pollution from use of the chemical to make the paper in the first place and not the paper once it is made.

Alternative Fiber for Paper

When the issue of alternative fiber comes up most people think of the popular ones – hemp and kenaf. There are others. Garbage, for instance, or agricultural by-products such as wheat or rice straw. Waste is a great alternative fiber from which to make paper.

We must recognize that utilizing our waste paper and agricultural waste will provide half or more of our paper needs. It is the first step in finding a true alternative to the highly destructive and polluting virgin paper industry as we know it today. Hemp, kenaf and others are being touted as great environmental alternatives to using trees for making paper, but they are still intentional crops raised specifically for paper. Cultivating alternative plant fiber to make paper may be necessary soon, but right now we can start by simply using our leftovers – waste paper and ag byproducts.

Intentional crops as substitute paper fiber may hurt our ability to take waste paper to the recycling center. Recycling is a loop. We save and take our waste paper to the recycling center and we must buy paper made with that post-consumer material. Currently only a small percentage of recoverable post-consumer waste paper is actually used (contrary to the misleading information of the American Forest and Paper Association). Many paper products labeled “recycled” are not made with post-consumer materials but only contain mill wastes which have always been used.

Secondary Impacts: Pollution and Land Use

Real recycled paper addresses not only waste, but water and air pollution and energy use. Keep in mind, however, that not all recycled paper is created equal. Recycled paper defined with terms like pre-consumer, recovered, and wastepaper essentially do nothing for the environment. The post-consumer content and the bleaching process are the keys to environmental soundness.

We face a crisis with waste in this country right now. Landfills are closing and a war rages over the disposal of waste. Using recycled paper reduces solid waste in landfills and can help reduce the cost of landfilling other garbage. By recovering and using post-consumer waste paper, we will promote other recovery and recycling; this can result in more compact and efficient landfills.

Recycled paper reduces energy consumption up to 70% over processing virgin pulp, and subsequently reduces the cumulative impacts of energy production. It reduces dependence on diminishing natural resources. Post-consumer waste is a source of raw material not being used efficiently. It requires 55% less water to process than virgin wood pulp, reduces water pollution by 35% or more, and eliminates many of the high-end toxic pollutants. It is more efficient to make paper from old paper than to make it from a virgin material – no matter what that material.

Utilizing agricultural waste for paper fiber provides a more environmentally sound alternative to it’s disposal than burning and would provide a large, stable fiber source in many areas. Combined with waste paper, it is a logical choice for regional solutions to waste problems. One independent company is pulping ag waste for paper, but its use is not widespread.

The production of intentional alternative fiber paper will have many advantages in the milling of paper over the making of paper from trees. Water and energy consumption, as well as chemical use, would be less with these fibers. However, intentional alternative fiber sources may create many of the same environmental problems associated with other agribusiness monocultures: increased consumption of water for cultivation, application of fertilizers and pesticides, and soil depletion. Some hemp paper is made in the Far East and shipped halfway around the globe to this country which raises social concerns as well as environmental questions. These papers are already very expensive and it will not be practical in an economically driven society if production costs are raised rather than lowered. We need products that will be used widely if we are to make a difference.

Post-Consumer Waste Recycled Paper

One advantage of recycled paper is that it CAN be made easily with less toxic processes, and thus result in less environmentally unsound wastes from manufacturing processes. Few recycled paper products are made using benign processes, but there are several that are much less harmful to the environment than other papers. Real recycled paper tends to be more environmentally benign than non-recycled because there tends to be less chemical usage.

Just because a paper is labeled recycled does not mean it is environmentally sound. We need to know the total recycled content, the post-consumer content, and the bleaching method if we are to choose more environmentally benign papers. Equally important is how we use paper in the first place, e.g. whether we use inks containing harmful heavy metals or opt for vegetable based inks.

Recycled paper made from 100% recycled paper fibers does not require much bleaching and can be easily done with an oxygen-based process. A few paper mills in this country use this far more environmentally sound process. Unbleached paper can readily be used for many purposes.

With the recycling of waste paper comes the necessity to de-ink the fiber. Mechanical and flotation deinking systems use significantly less chemicals than are required to make virgin paper. Keep in mind that what we think of as ink from copy machines and laser printers is actually a plastic polymer melted into the paper. It requires much more caustic chemicals to “de-ink” these polymers than ink. Using ink printing rather than lasers and copiers whenever possible can help to reduce toxic wastes in the long run.

Post-consumer waste – the stuff you and I take to the recycling center – doesn’t get used by magic. If we want the recycling center to take our waste paper, we must buy paper made with it.

The Broader Problem

One of the greatest environmental problems we face is Green Marketing – a new segment of industry that markets something as good for the environment whether the product is environmentally benign or not. This kind of marketing falsely assuages the consumer’s conscience. Much so-called recycled paper falls into this category. Disappointingly this taints the good products that are out there. It creates a demand where there is no need – thus over-consumption.

Wasteful consumption is a problem, whether it is green or not. Depending on your source, for everyone in the world to live in the manner we do in the U.S., it would take 3 to 5 planets like Earth just to provide the raw materials. Exploitation of others and their environments throughout the world for the Western ways of consumption and waste is a ripe issue for human rights advocates. To try and live at a sustainable level on Earth, Americans must reduce our average consumption by 65% to 80%. We as consumers need to be wary. We as conservationists have our work cut out for us.

Getting at Solutions

We need to preface the discussion of solutions by addressing the ways we as individuals, businesses, and organizations can reduce our overall use and waste of paper. Using less decreases pollution and saves money. Then we can examine the kind of paper we use to see if there is a more environmentally benign alternative we may want to look at.

A good option would be to mix agricultural byproducts and intentional fiber with post-consumer recycled paper to gain both waste stream reduction and fiber strength. This would address many of the environmental questions and bring down the cost of new fiber sources in paper. Many of the less recycled but more commonly used papers are made with up to 80% virgin fiber. With alternative fibers as the new source material, the result should be a truly high quality paper, and answer many of the questions raised about recycled paper, such as short fiber length and strength.

An excellent solution is regionally-made, high post-consumer waste (PCW), process chlorine free (PCF) paper. This kind of paper is on the market today. One paper, Arbokem’s DP3, is half agri-pulp and half post-consumer waste. These papers address waste stream, energy, water quality and toxic pollution issues, and they are quality papers.

Many more articles about recycled paper can be found at

Rick Meis, consultant, Woodelf Inc.,
Holistic Environmental Approaches to Recycling and Recycled Paper
for access to Real recycled paper, contact:
Treecycle Recycled Paper (west) at, or
Greenco Recycled Paper (east) at 800-326-2897

Note: Shel Horowitz’s book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, contains a great deal of other information about the interplay of marketing and social change, and ways to move a business toward both environmental and economic sustainablity.