Spitballs And Recycled Paper

July 20, 2011| Spitballs And Recycled Paper: Why every seventh grader knows recycled paper is better for the environment

by Frank Locantore

If you weren’t the seventh grader who chewed up paper and got it all pulpy with your saliva before doing something nefarious with it, then you most certainly remember those kids. These same kids would never think of making a spitball by chewing on a tree log – it takes way too much energy and could require mixing some hazardous chemicals with their saliva. Like middle school spitballs, making recycled paper uses less energy and water (saliva) and requires fewer tree parts and is better for the environment than making paper exclusively from trees.


Credible science backs up the spit-balling, environmentally intuitive seventh grader. The seminal Paper Task Force Report (PTFR) was written by the Environmental Defense Fund, Time Inc., Duke University, Johnson & Johnson, Prudential Life, and McDonald’s. Hardly the product of radical organizations, a glimpse of what the PTFR found is that:


  • Over the full lifecycle of paper products, recycling provides extensive, clear and measurable environmental advantages compared to virgin fiber systems.
  • For most grades of paper, products with recycled content that meet users’ functional needs and perform comparably to virgin paper are widely available.
  • Recycling offers a powerful but not widely recognized means for paper purchasers, acting in the aggregate, to increase supply and reduce prices for new paper products over the medium term by changing the dynamics of the market.[1]


Is There A Problem?

Despite the broad stakeholder participation and scientific rigor for the PTFR, the debate continues – specifically, questioning whether the best environmental option is to put recycled content into printing and writing (P&W) papers, like office copy paper and magazine paper. In his article last week, Jeff Mendelsohn, CEO and founder of New Leaf Paper, advised readers that those who question the environmental benefits of using recycled paper are most often the paper companies that cannot make recycled paper in an efficient and cost-effective manner.


Their three main arguments against using recycled paper are: 1) All collected recycled paper is being used – that we’ve reached “peak fiber”; 2) Recycled paper requires more fossil fuel use than virgin fiber paper; and, 3) It takes more chemicals to process recovered paper into a clean white P&W grade paper than into an alternative paper product. But, are these claims accurate?


Not At “Peak Fiber”

There is a clear difference between using all the paper we collect, and collecting all the paper we can. The Environmental Paper Network’s (EPN) recently released report, State Of The Paper Industry: 2011, shows that there is real pressure from Asian countries, primarily China [2], for our recycled paper. While the topic of exporting recycled paper requires its own article, the reality is that we are not collecting and using all available and recoverable paper – we have not yet reached peak fiber.


The American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA) estimates that we currently collect about 64% of paper through recycling efforts.[3] Ten million tons of office copy paper (P&W) remains uncollected [4] – and this office paper, especially, is the perfect resource for making recycled office paper. To better grasp this uncollected amount, consider that a total of about 3.7 million tons of paper were produced in 2009 for US magazines and catalogs[5]. This large amount of uncollected paper is an opportunity to conserve our resources and it demonstrates that we are far from a scarcity of paper to recover for recycling.


Energy Source Slight Of Hand

Let’s be frank, recycled paper does use more fossil fuels than virgin fiber paper because the energy is purchased from the electricity grid. But that doesn’t mean that virgin fiber paper uses less energy – they just use a different type of fuel. So, the question should be: which uses more total energy, and which process has a negative effect on our climate?


Virgin manufacturing systems, while using less energy purchased from the grid actually use more total energy. Much of their energy comes from burning biomass and black liquor (re: tree parts and chemical production wastes, respectively). However, both still emitting carbon to the atmosphere, and as we face a grave climate crisis, we must take actions today that reduce carbon emissions. Compared to virgin paper manufacturing, recycled paper production uses less total energy [6] and and emits far fewer greenhouse gases. Also, more recycled paper use reduces the pressure to log mature trees that can continue absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.


Chemical Troubles

It’s clear that when comparing the manufacturing processes of virgin tree fiber and recycled paper that the latter uses dramatically fewer chemicals.[7] The debate arises during inaccurate comparisons between the deinking processes of P&W paper and the paper types that require less whitening (re: newsprint).


As I mentioned earlier, there is no scarcity of recoverable fiber; there are millions of tons of paper from office buildings that are not being collected. Therefore, without scarcity, or “peak fiber,” the comparisons must always be between the same paper types. The production process for recycled office paper should always be compared to the production process of virgin tree fiber office paper. And, in using an accurate comparison like this, it shows that recycled paper uses dramatically fewer and much less harmful chemicals than does virgin office paper production. This is the “apples-to-apples” comparison that allows paper purchasers to understand important environmental savings when choosing recycled paper over virgin tree fiber paper.


An Opportunity Not To Be Refused

There are fantastic opportunities to create unexpected alliances and bridge differences in order to help solve critical problems. In fact, I’d argue that taking advantage of these opportunities is necessary in the face of some of the grave economic, environmental, and climate crises we now face.


The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) and the Environmental Paper Network (EPN), to which the Green America Better Paper Project is a founding member, have started to work together on strategies to divert more high-grade paper into recycled paper production. More demand for recycled paper products may spur more collection and separation for some of the 20 million tons of uncollected paper now going to landfills. Entrepreneurs that see the growing demand will help capture the as yet uncollected paper and create more green jobs, while recycled paper mills provide us with the paper that we need in a less environmentally harmful manufacturing process. And, we can get to this point through honest dialogue, constructive critiques, and effective and accurate public communications.


After all, even those spit-balling kids in the back of the classroom deserve lush forests, clean rivers, and a livable climate.


[1] Paper Task Force Report (PTFR), p. 64

[2] State Of The Paper Industry, 2011, Environmental Paper Network, http://www.environmentalpaper.org/state-of-the-paper-industry-2011.php

[3] American Forest & Paper Association, http://www.afandpa.org/whatwebelieve.aspx?id=1897

[5] mpa Paper Measurement Survey, 2010

[7] Hershkowitz, A. (2002). Bronx Ecology: Blueprint For A New Environmentalism. Washington, DC: Island Press. P. 63.








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