Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greenest paper company of all?
Virgin paper manufacturers confuse paper buyers with misleading comparisons of the environmental impacts of virgin paper vs. recycled paper
By Jeff Mendelsohn, New Leaf Paper
Over the last six months, some of the largest virgin fine paper manufacturers in North America have launched major marketing initiatives holding themselves up as environmental leaders. They support these claims by postulating that virgin paper manufacturing generates the same or less greenhouse gas emissions than recycled fine paper. They continue with broad statements suggesting high recycled content is not appropriate for fine printing and writing papers.
How do they arrive at this conclusion? By looking in the mirror. Two large virgin coated paper manufacturers, Sappi and Verso, performed lifecycle analysis of making virgin paper and recycled paper on their own existing infrastructure which is designed specifically to make virgin paper. Verso operates integrated virgin paper mills in rural parts of Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota. Not surprisingly, Verso found that making recycled paper at mills design to make virgin paper “doesn’t improve the carbon footprint.” They go further to claim “we’ve even seen an increase in carbon emissions as a result of the use of recycled content.” Sappi also operates integrated virgin paper mills in rural parts of Maine and Minnesota. Their website’s carbon footprint analysis displays dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions with increased recycled content - again based on making recycled paper at mills designed to make virgin paper. 
Environmental Superiority of Recycled Paper
Sappi puts forth a strong message against using recycled fiber in coated paper.
These statements mislead the paper buyers by implying that recycled paper is not better for the environment - simply because these mills are not set up to efficiently produce it. To be clear - making fine paper from waste paper is a more efficient process than making paper from trees, using less energy, less water, creating less effluent, and generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions. These facts are supported by the most comprehensive, independent, scientific lifecycle analysis of the impacts of paper manufacturing, the Paper Task Force Final Report.
In summary, not only do the virgin manufacturers provide an inaccurate perspective on greenhouse gas emissions associated with making recycled paper, they ignore all the other benefits (less water usage, fewer effluents, deforestation and ecosystem destruction, etc) of using recycled paper to support their conclusions.
Sustainability and the North American Paper Industry
While we find it necessary to correct the misinformation being spread in the marketplace, we focus our attention on the ultimate goal: collaborating with all stakeholders to continuously shift the North American paper industry toward sustainability. This requires a deep understanding of the most sustainable practices available today, the possibilities for the future, conceiving a path forward, and commitment from a critical mass of paper buyers and manufacturers.
As is clear in the Paper Task Force report, the most sustainable paper mills are located near the “urban forest” (sources of recycled fiber) and are designed to pulp wastepaper using chlorine free chemistry to make high recycled content paper. Only a handful of mills with this design are located in North America. One such mill, FutureMark, located on the outskirts of Chicago, sources 90% of its fiber from wastepaper within a 40 mile radius.
Why aren’t there more mills in North America designed to use recycled fiber? Why does United States and it citizens invest so much in recycling only to ship over 60% of all wastepaper off to China and other overseas destinations? Its chlorine free pulping process is designed specifically to pulp waste paper and only a small amount of virgin fiber is introduced into production as necessary for strength purposes. 
Imagine a fundamental shift in our infrastructure toward recycled paper mills, taking advantage of the vast quantity of wastepaper we collect every day. With greater use of recycle fiber, we reduce demand for virgin fiber, and make possible a future where all virgin fiber is sourced from either FSC certified forests or agricultural residues such as wheat straw left over after the harvest for food crops. Even with maximum use of recycle fiber, there will always be need for virgin fiber to replenish the inevitable fiber attrition from repeat recycling. Sustainability investments made by major virgin paper manufacturers are part of the solution. Sappi and Verso have made significant strides toward reducing their impact, including increased use of FSC certified virgin fiber sources. We look forward to continuing our efforts and building new partnerships that will move the industry towards greater environmental sustainability. These are perhaps the most pressing questions we face in evolving a more sustainable industry.
1 An integrated virgin paper mill is a manufacturing facility that integrates virgin wood pulping and papermaking in one location.
2 TAPPI Ahead of the Curve Newsletter. Feb 9, 2011. http://www.tappi.org/content/enewsletters/ahead/2011/issues/2011-02-09.html
3 URL for SAPPI website: http://www.na.sappi.com/getArticle.jsp?title=eQTool#/6/.
4 Paper Task Force Report. EDF website: http://www.edf.org/article.cfm?ContentID=1689
5 “Changing the Metrics of Green,” RISI website, June 13, 2011.
6 Ibid. http://www.risiinfo.com/techchannels/environment/Changing-the-metrics-of-green.html