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.