Advancing the paper life cycle dialog Go

Life cycle analysis (LCA) is being utilized across a breadth of industries to better understand the environmental impacts of products and services.  This is not a new tool among the scientific community.  There are LCA courses taught at colleges and universities, dissertations written, books abound, and every scientific field benefits from a credible journal. 

For those of us not subscribing to the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, BoSacks is creating much needed, broader visibility to this issue through his blog and newsletter.  As is the mysterious writer behind the Dead Tree Edition.  And, of course, there are many others.

If you are not directly involved in conducting this type of analysis, the concept is fairly straight forward.  Stuff doesn’t just exist – it comes from somewhere and has to end up somewhere - and every step along the way has some form of environmental impact.  Through Life Cycle Analysis we aim to take a systematic approach to study a given product from raw material acquisition through manufacturing, distribution, use and it’s “end of life”.  For many products (including paper) the end of life can mean disposal in a landfill, incineration or recycling. 

At a high level, I have yet to find anyone disagree with the conclusions we’ve summarized through the opening chapter of our eQTool, and reinforced most recently in a blog posting by Christine Burrow of The Sustainability Consortium.  In short, for printing and writing papers, the most significant environmental impacts are created by pulp and paper manufacturing and disposal.

If you want to convert these conclusions to actions, it’s quite simple.  Buyers should procure paper from the supplier with the smallest footprint and we all need to do our parts to keep paper products out of landfills.  Corporate marketers and the creative agencies are encouraged to use “please recycle” claims and logos and as individuals we should pay attention.

But beyond these basic tenants, the plot thickens and controversy abounds.  Our instincts tell us that if recycling is good – then using recycled fiber is also good.  Furthermore, many people will assume that if something is good, then more must be better.   But papermaking systems are complex and the use of recycled fiber is not a one size fits all solution.

In LCA lingo – many paper mills are seen as “open loop” systems.  We take recycled fiber from one grade of paper and routinely turn it into another type of paper.  For example, at our mills we utilize recycled fiber derived by deinking uncoated papers (e.g. office waste).  And our coated freesheet paper (most often found in magazines, catalogs and brochures) often gets converted into packaging grades.  Many people use the term “down cycling” to describe this type of material flow.

In contrast there are  “closed loop” systems where a product is converted back into itself - like taking an aluminum beverage can and turning it back into a beverage can. Or in the world of paper, turning a corrugated container back into a corrugated container.

To complicate things further, no two paper mills are identical.  One must consider if a product is bleached or unbleached (white or brown), whether a mill is integrated or not (i.e. does it make its own pulp or buy it), where the mill’s energy is derived from (fossil fuels or renewable sources) and so on.  At the 2010 GAA environmental workshop, the conference chair summarized LCA analysis by saying, “It’s complicated – and it depends.”  So very true.

At Sappi, we’ve studied our mills and our supply chain.  The conclusions are quite clear:  Because our mills are so well integrated - utilizing high levels of renewable energy - adding deinked pulp to our products actually raises the carbon footprint of those products.  And adding more just exacerbates the impact.  It is not an obvious conclusion, but nor is it unique.  Other coated freesheet suppliers face the same issue.

We have worked hard to educate our customers about this complexities of papermaking and will continue to do so.  And we applaud those stakeholders who make the effort to get beyond “sound bite” science and truly understand the issues.  Together we will advance the dialog and make informed choices.

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What do you know about your electricity supply? Go

We all use electricity – but the supply varies greatly depending on where we live.  Utility suppliers can generate electricity from a wide variety of sources and different sources result in different emissions.  Coal produces far more emissions per kWh of electricity than other major fuels, and emissions from coal fired plants typically account for four fifths of CO2 emissions produced by the electric power sector.

In chapter 2 of our eQ Tool, we provide a platform for looking at the impact of energy source on papermaking emissions.  And within that tool, there is an option for selecting a different state to adjust for the impact of the variations in the power grid. 

Electricity suppliers in Maine must provide fact sheets from time to time to educate consumers about their electicity service.  So I routinely receive a bulletin that shows a complete breakdown of the power sources and air emissions associated with my electricity supply.  Here’s what I recently learned about my electricity power sources:

My electric supply in Portland, Maine for 2010:

24.1 % Nuclear

42.4% Fossil Fuels (29.1% Gas , 5.5 % Oil, 7.8% Coal)

29.6% Hydro

3.9% Other renewable (1/7% biomass, 1.2% wind and 1.0% municipal waste)

The resulting air emissions are 594 lbs of CO2 per MWh

By contrast, the US national average for 2009 was:

20.2% Nuclear

68.8% Fossil Fuels (23.3% Gas, 1.0% Oil, 44.5% coal)

6.8% Hydro

4.2% Other renewable

The national average CO2 emissions in 2009 were 1267 lbs of CO2 per MWhr.  (I converted eia data of 2,270 million metric tons of CO2 for 3,950 million MWhr)

The US paper industry derives nearly two thirds of its energy from renewable and at our mills in Skowhegan, ME and Cloquet, MN over 85% of our total energy comes from renewable sources.  Getting off fossil fuels lowers our carbon footprint and also shelters us from the volatility of fuel prices.

Carbon claims: PR puffery or fact-based science? Go

In communicating about complex issues, I am constantly challenged to share information in a concise manner.  Too much information causes readers (or listeners) to lose interest.  At the other end of the spectrum, not enough information can lead to accusations of greenwashing or PR puffery. 

Here is perhaps the most concise line of “copy” that I’ve developed:  

Paper is made from renewable resources, with high levels of renewable energy and is recyclable. 

Hopefully this statement makes a clear positive impression about our industry.  I cannot think of another single material that can say the same.  And there is a lot packed into this statement if we start to look deeper. Today, I’ll focus on the renewable energy aspect and some information we share in our eQ Tool.

If one looks at the total US energy profile whether its used for transportation, manufacturing or supporting the built environment – less than 10% of total energy in the US comes from renewable resourcesThat’s any renewable resource (wind, solar, hydroelectric, biomass or geothermal).

In contrast, according to AF&PA, the US pulp and paper industry derives roughly two thirds of its energy from renewable resources, primarily biomass and hydroelectric power.  Chapter 2 of our eQ Tool illustrates the full industry profile and the emissions associated with the various sources.  We also show how our paper mills in North America stack up to the industry average.  Because over 85% of energy at our mills is renewable, we have a significantly lower carbon footprint.  Reviewing public information (the sustainability reports of our competitors) we find that we have the lowest carbon footprint of the major domestic coated free sheet suppliers.

In the Environmental Benefits section of the Tool, we take comparative carbon calculations one step further.  Users are able to enter information on a specific project and can calculate the benefits of using Sappi papers.  The calculations are restricted to those emissions from fossil fuels used on site (Scope 1) and emissions associated with purchased electricity (Scope 2). 

The calculation is not a full blown life cycle analysis and thus assumes that other indirect (Scope 3) emissions are comparable for us and the industry average.  In other words, it compares only the mill energy consumption.  It assumes our products have the same average end of life burdens and similarly it assumes other aspects like employee travel, chemical usage etc are the same as average. 

We are currently embarking on full Life Cycle Analsyis of products made at our Somerset Mill.  While results may lead to more detailed comparisons, the primary focus of the work is to identify areas where we may be able to reduce emissions across the supply chain.

Thus far, as a result of much research and analysis, there are two aspects that remain clear when it comes to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with printed materials.  Paper buyers can have the biggest impact by choosing from a supplier with a low carbon footprint.  And users can have the biggest impact by making sure paper gets recycled – eliminating the potential for methane emissions from landfills.

Back to school quiz: How do you weigh a wiggins? Go

In the mid 1990’s if you wandered over to the northwest corner of the GA Tech campus, near the corner of 10th Street and Hemphill Avenue, you could find the home of the Wiggins Scale Company – and the answer to the age old question:

Q:  How do you weigh a wiggins?

A:  With a Wiggins Scale – of course!

(Save the e-groans, I know this is a bad joke, but I still think it’s funny)

I refrained from sharing this joke recently when asked about our greenhouse gas emissions.  We report emissions in units of tons of CO2, but how do we weigh them?  Actually, we don’t.  We calculate our emissions.

Scientists have developed emissions factors for various fuels.  At our mills, we keep track of our fuel consumption and purchased power (our electric bills) and then we simply multiply the amount of fuel by the appropriate emissions factors to convert energy consumption to emissions.  Each type of fuel has a different factor and, depending on where you are in the country, emissions from the electric grid vary greatly. 

Per unit energy, coal is a higher greenhouse gas emitter than oil which is higher than natural gas.   These factors ultimately impact the differences in the electric grid.  Generally speaking, regions that use more coal for electricity will have higher emissions.  And at the other end of the scale, renewable energy sources and nuclear energy used for electricity generation have no CO2 emissions.  So states with a high levels of renewable and nuclear power generation have lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Chapter 2 in our eQ Tool enables users to learn more about the impact of energy sources on emissions from paper mills.  We developed this chapter to demonstrate that it is not just how much energy one consumes, but the type of energy has a huge impact on overall emissions. 

You can also learn more about the differences in the electricity grid by visiting the EPA’s database website; the eGRID.

And if you are looking to weigh a wiggins, I was happy to find that this third generation family owned business is still in operation in Atlanta.