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Environmentally Preferable Papers

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Three arrows forming a circle: the recycling logo is widely recognizable and important to look for when choosing environmentally friendly product.

Three arrows forming a circle: the recycling logo is widely recognizable and important to look for when choosing environmentally friendly products. It was designed during the very first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, and suggests connections of the Earth, our actions, and ourselves.

White arrows on black indicate that the product or product packaging is partly or entirely made from recycled material. Black or outlined arrows

simply encourage us to recycle the product or packaging we buy.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

We've come a long way since that first Earth Day 34 years ago. Industry, government, and individuals have worked hard to support recycling through mill improvements, legislation, and consumer choice. In 1989, for example, only one mill in Canada was capable of producing recycled-content newsprint. Today, more than 25 such mills exist.

But we still have a long way to go. Although we're recycling more, we're also consuming more. Canada ranks third in world per-capita paper consumption: that's 220 kg per person per year, well above the world average of 51 kg. The rate of world paper consumption has increased significantly since the 1950s. Global use of paper products has increased six fold to 299 million tons in 1997 - making recycling initiatives even more imperative.

But what's available to us can sometimes be confusing. Some products appear to contain recycled content (through ambiguous labelling) when they actually don't. Recycled products are mistakenly considered more expensive and inferior to nonrecycled paper products. In fact, most environmentally preferred papers are of comparable quality and can often be cheaper than many mainstream products.

Pulp and Paper Pollution

Pulp and paper mills consume huge amounts of chemicals, water, and energy to produce the pure white paper products we're accustomed to using. They're among the greatest polluters - the third worst in North America. Depending on the system of paper production, mill waste can contaminate land, water, and air.

Although some mills in Canada have converted their production to incorporate post-consumer waste, many still pollute the environment. Some continue to use chlorine-based bleach to whiten their products and hungrily consume resources, especially fresh water.

Waste water is known to cause reproductive damage in zooplankton and genetic and immune damage in fish. Over-consumption of water can degrade habitat, reduce water levels, and alter water temperature, all detrimental to fish survival.

Setting Standards

The Environmental Paper Network, a coalition of environmental NGOs, came together in 2003 to establish a set of standards for the pulp and paper industry. Their vision outlines three main areas of control: maximization of recycled content, responsible fibre sourcing, and clean paper production. The Network suggests a minimum of 30 percent post-consumer waste in paper production and no old-growth or endangered forest fibres (and alternative fibre sourcing such as straw and hemp). They also recommend totally chlorine free or process chlorine free bleaching in place of elemental chlorine-free bleaching, which does reduce chlorine pollution in water, but still potentially pollutes the air and land through "sludge" residue. Contaminated sludge is commonly burned, landfilled, and has even been proposed as fertilizer for forests, parks, and farmland.

Some of the Network's recommendations go hand in hand: Recycled post-consumer waste requires much less bleaching since it has already been bleached. Less bleaching means less energy consumed and fewer chemicals used.

Some governments have attempted legislation to control the dangerous pollution threat of pulp and paper producers. In 1992, the BC government passed legislation requiring the AOX test, which determines organochlorine levels in mill waste. In 2002, BC's Zero AOX law was dismantled - short of its goal of zero organochorine discharge.

No bleaching or less harmful oxygen-based bleaching and a "closed-loop" system are the ideals for pulp mill production. A closed-loop system recycles plant waste water and significantly reduces the environmental burden - a model reminiscent of the three-arrow recycling logo.

What's on the Shelf?

So, what does this all mean to you? Each time you reach for a paper product off your grocer's shelf, look for three things on the produce label: Was the product made with some amount of recycled content? Is the product unbleached or bleached without chlorine? Is the product made with fibre other than wood? Answering yes to some or all of these questions means you'll be buying what's best. You'll find many affordable environmentally preferred paper products - from tissue paper to diapers, feminine hygiene products to paper towels, coffee filters to cheesecloth.
Remember, we are all part of that three-arrow loop. What we choose to purchase determines how the environment is used or abused. Choose what's best and enjoy environmentally preferred paper products - and help to close the loop.

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