Recently one of BoSacks’ readers commented about the use of recycled fiber in graphic communication papers (i.e. paper used for magazines, catalogs and direct mail). The reader was identified only as a “paper person” as Bo grants anonymity to those that are willing to speak out. There were some points made that were so strong, I wanted to share them. On the other hand there were a couple of points that I think my fellow paper person got wrong. In an interest of furthering the dialog, I will quote and comment herein.
First the strong:
“It is generally very inefficient (or “wrong”) to inject recycled fiber into a virgin paper production process. That said, it can be even more efficient to make new paper from old paper than from trees if that recycled paper is made at a mill purpose-built for recycled paper. There are many paths to green, and there are ecological benefits to both recycled and virgin papers. Regardless of whether you’re talking about a recycled or virgin mill, they can only achieve maximum production efficiency — and thus optimal resource conservation — only if the mill adheres to the type of production it was designed to accommodate. “
This is a really important point and one that is often over-looked in the debate as a result of trying to make generalizations. Efficiency (which ties to both economic performance and environmental impact) is maximized when equipment is used as designed. You wouldn’t use a sports car to haul a ton of bricks and nor would anyone opt to drive a flatbed truck on a daily commute to the city.
It is an oversimplified notion to universally promote maximizing recycled fiber in paper. Paper is not one thing. There are some systems that are better suited – some grades that are better suited – and even within grade categories, some mills that are better suited to use recycled fiber. There are vast differences between recycled paperboard for packaging applications and premium papers for magazines. Paper mills are complex. Some mills are integrated with pulping systems, while others rely on purchased fiber. Pulping can be done mechanically (e.g. groundwood) or chemically (kraft pulping). Depending on the grade and the application, there may or may not be bleaching involved. And so on. Ultimately, recycled fiber should be used in products where it does not create inefficiencies – and where it can displace fiber with a higher carbon footprint.
Which leads me back to reader comments that I felt were wrong. I quote:
“An integrated virgin pulp mill can be extremely efficient from a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standpoint, but the reason for that is because methodologies for calculating carbon footprint do not measure all GHG inputs. Some of the most respected NGOs would even say current methodologies are faulty. For instance, most calculations of carbon footprint do not factor in the burning of biomass at virgin mills. The burning of wood waste for fuel is treated as carbon-neutral. This is considered by most NGOs to be an unintended loophole in the Kyoto Protocol, because burning biofuel definitely does generate GHG emissions—lots of airborne emissions in particular. The commensurate GHG impact is not measured, however, because Kyoto says it does not need to be. If virgin paper producers did count the impact of their biomass practices, however, they would probably find that the GHG generated per ton of paper produced would be higher on an absolute basis at a virgin mill than at a purpose-built recycled mill.”
Paper Person is absolutely right that there are emissions associated with biomass and that we do not count them toward our carbon footprints. This is because biogenic sources of carbon dioxide (anything that comes from a plant) do not contribute to changing the overall composition of the atmosphere. This is not a “loophole” in carbon accounting. The methodology is grounded in science and an understanding of carbon cycles. I am not sure which NGO’s Paper Person is referring to, but the EDF, WWF, the IPCC, WRI, the Union of Concerned Scientists and more - all support the notion that biogenic sources of CO2 do not contribute to changing the composition of the atmosphere – i.e. they are not associated with global warming. The benefits of renewable biofuels are also the backbone of federal (and state) legislation that support mandates for renewable fuels – like ethanol in gasoline blends and biomass for electricity generation. Our challenge –as individuals and within industry – is to use less fossil fuels.
Yes, deinking facilities typically use less energy than virgin pulp mills. But generally speaking, deinking facilities rely more on fossil fuels and therefore have a higher carbon footprint than an integrated kraft mill.
To be specific, adding recycled fiber to Sappi’s highly efficient, integrated, virgin kraft mills in Cloquet, MN and Skowhegan, ME actually raises the carbon footprint of products made at those mills.
Readers are encourage to learn more about the sustainable use of recycled fiber by visiting our eQ Landing Page and downloading our whitepaper (Volume 2) here.
Note: If you are affiliated with the publishing industry and not signed up to receive America’s Oldest e-newsletter – you are missing out. “Heard on the Web Media Intelligence” is a daily feed (3 pieces daily without fail) curated by Bob Sacks. The newsletter tracks trends and emerging issues about magazines, the future of print, and the evolution of e-media. While not a primary focus topic, there is also occasionally content about the environmental impacts of publishing.