arivanow said: Hi Dr. Laura: Can you discuss the environmental attributes of "tree-free" paper? thanks L

Let’s examine the underlying implication in this approach to marketing claims: that a given product is more sustainable because it doesn’t use trees. 

I’ve seen goods ranging from building products (like decking and siding) to paper to Christmas trees labeled as “tree free”.  For paper, there are generally two types of categories where these claims come into play:  synthetic products and those made from alternative fibers.

Synthetic papers are simply not paper* at all.   They are pigmented plastic films – derived from fossil fuels.  And while some of these films can be recycled, it is important to note that they should be recycled in the plastics stream, not with paper as they cannot be re-pulped or processed in paper recycling systems.  There are good applications for these types of products – outdoor signage, waterproof maps, etc.  But I contend we shouldn’t label these products “tree free paper”.  They are plastic.  Are these products more sustainable than paper made from trees?  I think not.

Alternative fibers have been in use since paper was first invented.  In fact, the word paper is derived from papyrus – a wetland sedge ubiquitous along the Nile.  The first paper mills in the US relied on cotton rags for their fiber source.  Many alternative fibers are still in use today including hemp, bamboo, bagasse and other agricultural residues.  But just because these products are not derived from trees, it does not make them inherently environmentally preferable or “eco-friendly”.

In order to compare products or make credible claims, one must look beyond the fiber source and understand the manufacturing footprint of the mill.  To make the best decision possible, we really need to look at the mill’s performance data.

In their Seven Sins of Greenwashing, TerraChoice describes the “the hidden trade off” as  A claim suggesting that a product is “green” based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.  They also speak of  “irrelevance” as an environmental marketing claim that may be truthful but is unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.

The notion of making “free of” claims also troubles the FTC.  In the proposed revision of their Green Guides they are expanding the guidance on the use of these types of claims, citing that “even if true, claims that an item is free-of a substance may be deceptive”.

We need not make apologies for making paper from trees.  Trees are a renewable resource. When manufactured and consumed responsibly, paper is a sustainable communication platform and has been for thousands of years.  

* pa·per (noun)

1. A material made of cellulose pulp, derived mainly from wood, rags, and certain grasses, processed into flexible sheets or rolls by deposit from an aqueous suspension, and used chiefly for writing, printing, drawing, wrapping, and covering walls.

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