5 Steps for Specifying Eco-friendly Papers

I get asked a lot by my customers what is the most environmentally friendly paper. Many think because a paper has 100%PCW that it must be the best choice for their client - not necessarily so. To make life a little easier for those who really want to be eco-conscious when selecting paper for print, here are 5 simple steps to remember.

1. Choose paper with the highest amount of PCW for the job. Did you see that last part - for the job. Just because a sheet is 100%PCW does not mean it is appropriate for every print project. For example, it is very easy to find a sheet for an identity system that is 100%PCW and I would say that is a very conscientious choice. However, if you are working on an annual report, or corporate brochure and require a coated paper, 100%PCW is not going to be a good fit. Why?

Let me break it down - most coated papers are made with 10%PCW for a reason due to the manufacturing process. Now many coated paper mills can produce sheets with up to 30%PCW without compromising the integrity of the sheet, but when you get past that point - all bets are off. Paper can be recycled up to 7 times, by that last time it's like tissue paper. The more a sheet is recycled the weaker the fibers become - weak fibers can present a whole host of issues , but the most common one is cracking. So if it's a project with solid ink coverage and on a cover weight - high PCW content (above 10-30%) on a coated paper almost guarantees cracking issues.

Then there's also the issue of not nearly enough recycled pulp available to manufacture all the paper we have that way. If the industry attempted to manufacture all papers with 100%PCW they'd run out of pulp in two months.

2. Select a sheet that is manufactured with third party chain of custody certification. Today in the US that means one of three options: FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative), and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes). These certification insure that the paper is coming from a well managed forest. This is not really an issue in North America, however it is in places like Indonesia and China. Right now FSC is the most widely held here in North America. To use these logos all three parties in the chain (paper mill, paper merchant, and printer) must be certified.

3. Select paper that is manufactured with renewable energy. This is becoming more and more important. Right now we are fortunate, there are many paper mills that have long employed renewable energy as a means of manufacturing - now they are just becoming better promoters about it. Renewable energy could mean wind power, solar, bio-mass, hydroelectric - to name a few. Look for the Green-e logo on the swatch books to insure certification.

4. Select paper that paper that is manufactured chlorine free. When paper is recycled, the mills need to remove the ink on the existing sheet - that is done by bleaching. Up until the late 1990s, chlorine was the chemical of choice for bleaching paper in the kraft pulping process, which produces almost all printing and office papers, as well as tissue products, along with some types of packaging. Not only does chlorine get paper fibers very white, it also pulls out and binds with lignins (the structural cells in the tree that cause paper to deteriorate).

However, when chlorine bonds chemically with carbon-based compounds (such as lignins), it produces dioxins and toxic pollutants. When released into water, they do not break down. Dioxin, even when released in miniscule amounts, bioaccumulates as it moves up the food chain, reaching its highest concentration in humans, where it is increasingly linked to cancers as well as endocrine, reproductive, nervous and immune system damage.

Look for either Process Chlorine Free (PCW content papers) or Totally Chlorine Free (Virgin fiber papers)to insure no chlorine was used in the manufacturing process.

5. Look for papers made with alternative fibers. Sounds simple, but sometimes I think we forget that there are many options other than wood out there. Some alternative fibers are bagasse, hemp, kenaff, bamboo, and even rocks.

Hopefully this will help simplify the process of specifying environmentally friendly papers. If you are looking for more info, check out our eco-friendly guides for coated and uncoated papers here.


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  2. Great and valid suggestions... until we get to point 5. Alternative fiber papers are hard or impossible to get - kenaf has not produced paper in more than 2 years, same goes for Ecosource and their hemp line. Bagasse and bamboo are only aavailable in small amounts in one sheet in North America ...

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  4. Neenah Paper's Environment swatch book offers some paper "made with 50% alternative fiber (such as bagasse and bamboo)."

    Terra Skin makes paper out of stone, according to their website "TerraSkin is a combination of large amounts of mineral powder (>75%) with a small quantity (<25%) of non-toxic resin combined to create an environmentally friendly paper.In producing TerraSkin, the harvesting of trees is unnecessary."

    Upon further investigation, I understand Vision Paper, the only US source for kenaf paper is no longer making it.While I realize alternative fiber paper options do not exist in large quantities, I also believe if enough people request more alternative fiber papers, thereby increasing demand, we will see manufacturers increase their offerings of them.

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  6. Sabine/Scott

    I guess the issue here is that without more demand for alt. fiber papers the supply is limited. Simple micro-economics. So it becomes a chicken and the egg issue. Until there is a consistent demand, there won't be a large supply. So is the answer demand more despite the struggles and push forward the market?