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Part III - Making Paper: Content


Many people assume that tree-free and recycled paper are new environmental "fads." But paper has only been made from wood pulp since the 1850s. The first recycled paper dates back almost 2,000 years to when a Chinese court official, Ts'ai Lun, developed paper made from rags, old fishing nets, hemp and China grass for the Chinese Royal Court in the second century. (Clearly, this was tree-free and chlorine-free paper as well!)

By the fifth century, the Chinese had invented printing; by the eighth century the art of making paper spread to the Arab world. The Arabs improved the art by making paper from linen and soon paper usage spread through the Middle East and into Spain. By the eleventh century, Japanese papermakers were using wastepaper to produce new paper. Old documents and papers were repulped and made into new papers to be sold in paper shops.

European papermaking didn't blossom until the 15th century. When Gutenberg produced his first Bible in 1456, most manuscripts were still made from parchment - the skin of a sheep or goat that's been prepared for writing - or vellum, the skin of a calf. It took the skins of 300 sheep to print one copy of Gutenberg's Bible.

However, by the sixteenth century, paper mills using old cloth rags were springing up all over Europe. Linen was the predominant source of material for paper, although cotton began to show up in paper by the 18th century, as Europeans began to recycle cotton rags.

Recycled rags were virtually the only source of papermaking fiber in the Western world for over 700 years, until wood pulp processes were developed in the mid-nineteen century. The first paper mill in North America was built by the Spanish in Mexico City in 1575. The first paper mill in what became the United States, built by Dutch papermaker William Rittenhouse, was constructed in 1690 near Philadelphia and used rags to produce paper, launching the American recycled paper industry. The first patent for deinking wastepaper was issued in 1800.

The rag shortages that led to an intensive search for alternative sources of papermaking fiber resulted in four processes that could be used to make wood pulp into paper. Wood was finally chosen as the raw material of choice because of the vast forests that covered the United States at the time, even though wood pulp is not a perfect fiber source. Only about 50% of wood is cellulose that can be made into paper, much less than the cellulose content of cotton or linen. The first groundwood pulp mill in the United States was established in 1867 in Massachusetts and the first commercial production of wood pulp by chemical, or "cooking," processes was begun in 1887 in Ontario, Canada.


Nearly half of the trees cut in North America go to papermaking. Paper companies cite lower percentages, claiming that most of the trees are cut for lumber to make buildings, furniture and other non-paper products. However, the lumber and paper industries work closely together. A significant part of the tree cannot be used for lumber and is chipped, instead, for papermaking. While some of this collaboration between the lumber and paper industries represents a good way to use what otherwise would be "waste" from resource extraction (branches, stumps, "forest residue," sawdust), trees are also being cut for papermaking when they're too small for lumber.

The paper industry now calls trees a "renewable resource," giving people the impression that there is no problem with cutting trees. It is true that trees can be replanted, in contrast to oil, ores and minerals. But it is not that simple. Counting trees individually misses much of their value. While some trees are grown on plantations for the paper industry, particularly in the southern United States, these replanted trees do not make a true forest. They are usually managed intensively, with heavy use of petrochemical inputs such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. They are monocultures, without the mix of types of trees, different ages, bushes, undergrowth, snags, etc. that true forests have. Therefore they also do not have the wildlife, birds, amphibians and biological diversity of a true forest.

Unlike a true forest, replanted trees are not self-sustaining. Buyers should be aware that tree pulp can only be reliably considered "renewable" when the wood has been independently certified as sustainably-harvested. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) uses the most environmentally comprehensive third-party standards to certify forestry companies and manufacturers that provide products from sustainably harvested forests.

People often justify their commitment to reducing paper use and using recycled or tree-free paper by saying that it will "save trees." But it's really "saving forests" that should be the resource focus. Trees are not a "crop" in the normal sense of the word. They are not planted on agricultural farmland. Before a tree farm is planted, forests have to fall.

Similarly, the paper industry claims that they plant more trees than they cut. However, "plant" is the operative word. A large percentage of the trees planted do not survive to maturity, nor are they intended to, as the trees are thinned with growth.

The federal government owns more than 20 percent of all commercial timber acres in the United States. On these lands, taxpayers heavily subsidize the virgin paper industry through such forest services as:

  • building roads at below-cost in national forests,

  • selling timber at well below market value,

  • heavily subsidizing energy costs (EPA reports that recycling paper saves 22-64% of energy costs over virgin paper production),

  • subsidizing water costs (recycling uses 42% less water),

  • giving special tax subsidies and write-offs to the timber industry,

  • banning exports of most logs from federal land in the West, which depresses the price of timber in the remaining domestic markets.

The result is that forests that are supposedly held on behalf of the public are instead given away at well below cost. Then the public is required to pay high prices for the products made from them in order to enrich the companies that the public has already subsidized. This might have made sense in the 1890s, when such policies were intended to settle the West and develop industries, jobs and transportation. They do not make sense now, when they put more environmentally sound production processes at a distinct disadvantage.

Once trees are diverted to papermaking, they are chipped into small pieces and converted into paper fiber at a pulping mill. Even here, there could be improvements. A 1991 Worldwatch State of the World report on forestry determined that improved milling efficiency and better technology could save 25% of trees. Another 25% could be saved by improving packaging.

For fine paper quality pulp (e.g., that used for making printing and writing papers), North American mills (and 77% of global pulp production) most often use a chemical "kraft" process that cooks the chips down into usable fibers. Wood consists of about 50% cellulose, 30% lignin (a tough, resinous adhesive that provides structural support to the tree), and 20% easily extractable substances such as aromatic oils and carbohydrates. Since high quality paper is produced from cellulose, other substances, particularly the lignin, need to be removed. Paper with a high lignin content will yellow and age quickly when exposed to light.

Some fine papers are made in a mechanical "groundwood" process, although this type of mill more often makes newsprint. Very literally, the wood is ground up in this kind of pulping and the lignin is left in the paper. Mechanical pulping is less expensive and more efficient, using up to 95% of the wood versus 50% for the kraft chemical process, but it produces a weaker paper with a high lignin content. Some copy, computer and other office papers that do not require long life are made with groundwood pulp. Groundwood is also used to make many coated publication grades, although there are also many coated sheets that are groundwood-free.

Many pulping mills are attached to a papermaking facility and the pulp is dedicated to making that mill's paper. But other pulping mills make "market pulp," to sell on the open global market, and even mills that supply a particular papermaking facility often have excess pulp to sell. Many mills integrated with a wood-pulping facility have "closed" systems; the pipes carrying fiber from the pulping mill to the start of the papermaking process cannot economically accommodate market pulps, such as recycled.


As the pulp is made, it is also bleached. Chlorine was the bleach of choice in the past, both because it gets the pulp (which otherwise is tree-colored) the whitest and because it is the most effective chemical at removing the five percent or so of lignin that remains after cooking down the chips in the kraft process.

However, when chlorine is combined with carbon-based substances such as wood, it produces by-products called chlorinated organic compounds, including dioxins and furans. When released into water, dioxins do not break down. As early as 1985, EPA labeled dioxin "the most potent carcinogen ever tested in laboratory animals." When fish eat contaminated materials, the dioxin travels up the food chain, bioaccumulating in the fatty tissues of fish, sea birds and mammals. Therefore, even a minuscule amount in water can create a significant risk in humans and wildlife. Increasingly, research links dioxins to endocrine, reproductive, nervous and immune system damage.

The paper industry has instituted pollution prevention changes that have reduced dioxin emissions by 92% since 1988. In the past few years, virtually all mills in the U.S. and Canada have stopped using elemental chlorine gas for bleaching. Almost all have switched to using a chlorine derivative instead, primarily chlorine dioxide. Now the industry says that most mills are at "non-detectable" dioxin levels in their effluent. But "non-detectable" only indicates the technological capacity of current testing methods at relatively elevated government-required detection levels. It is not the same as "zero concentration" of dioxins. In fact, dioxins can be - and often are - measured at much smaller concentrations. In addition, the "non-detect" tests measure only dioxins and do not account for other potentially dangerous chlorinated organic compounds produced in enormous quantities. Dioxin is only the tip of the iceberg. Almost 1,000 organochlorines are produced in the chlorine bleaching process used by the pulp and paper industry. The health and environmental consequences of many of these chemicals have never been studied.

While chlorine dioxide can significantly reduce the emission of organochlorines (often cutting emissions in half), it does not completely eliminate the production of these toxins. Although the paper industry has had patents for chlorine-free bleaching technologies since the early 1970's (one of these patents described chlorine bleaching as causing "a serious pollution problem" in 1970), it has been slow to implement chlorine-free processes. Europe has embraced TCF technology much more quickly than the U.S.

EPA developed an integrated regulation, called the "cluster rules," that reduces toxic and hazardous pollutant releases by setting guidelines and standards affecting both water discharges and air emissions. The goal of these "cluster rules" is to prevent pollution in the first place, rather than devising more and more complex technological "fixes" after the fact.

The cluster rules for wastewater standards recommend two options for "best available technology economically achievable (BAT)" for limiting effluent pollution. Both of these involve 100% substitution of chlorine dioxide for elemental chlorine, with one of the options adding oxygen delignification or extended cooking (both part of the pulping process designed to further break down lignins). It also includes a program to reward mills using technologies that exceed BAT, namely totally chlorine-free processes.

Chlorine and its derivatives are highly corrosive to a paper mill's pipes and so make it very difficult to close the effluent loop within the mill and avoid discharging wastewater altogether. TCF, however, by eliminating the corrosive factor, makes closed-loop systems much more achievable, providing a significant environmental advantage in preventing dioxins and organochlorines in the first place, and allowing the wastewater to be recycled and cleaned within the mill as well. Barry Commoner's Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, at Queens College, New York, studied pulp and paper mills on the Great Lakes. It found that converting these mills to TCF would raise the price of pulp by only a few percent and that the use of chlorine-free bleaching agents, although twice the cost of chlorine-based equivalents, would allow the mills to use lower, and therefore less expensive, grades of wastepaper.


If paper is not made from trees, what else can it be made from? As the Brief History of Paper above makes clear, paper has been made from materials other than trees for most of its existence. This is still true in many other parts of the world, where trees are not as abundant as they are in North America. But even here, we have plenty of non-tree resources for making paper, if we develop the infrastructure necessary to support it. Not only could tree-free furnishes reduce the demand on forests, they could also solve some of our agricultural problems in an environmentally sound way.

Tree-free fibers range from very short to very long and each has its own variation of processing requirements. But, technically, any grade of paper can be produced by using an appropriate mixture and processing of tree-free fibers and result in a quality sheet of paper. Some crops, such as kenaf, even combine both long and short fibers within different parts of the same plant, rather than requiring the combination of different species, as with trees, for optimizing performance qualities.

A number of papers made from agricultural crops have been introduced into the marketplace in the past few years and proven themselves to be functionally equivalent to wood-based papers. Some of them are high-quality 100% tree-free papers; others are mixed with recycled pulp and/or wood-pulp in a traditional papermill to make printing and writing papers, as well as newsprint.


Rittenhouse's Philadelphia paper mill, the first paper manufacturing facility in the U.S., made recycled paper from cotton rags. Peddlers traveled the New England states regularly, buying old cotton rags from people's homes to make into paper. Cotton paper mills still flourish in the U.S., making high-end fine papers. Most of their pulp comes from cotton linters, short clippings that are a residue left from secondary ginning by seed oil companies after the longer fibers are removed from cotton bolls for fabric. The creative use of this residue certainly qualifies as an environmental virtue. At the same time, the tremendous amount of pesticides and water (quite often in arid locations) necessary to grow the cotton for clothing manufacturers, its primary market, creates other environmental problems.

However, some cotton papers are made through processes that attempt to reduce the environmental demand. One incorporates the clippings left over from making clothing from cotton that is grown organically, significantly reducing the environmental burden. Carefully grown from heirloom seeds that reproduce cotton's original natural colors of tan, green and cream colors, this pulp is not bleached at all, lending these soft earth colors to the paper.

Other cotton papers incorporate materials such as postconsumer paper (to qualify as "recycled" under most recycled paper definitions), blue jeans, and even old money that has been taken out of circulation.


Beginning in the 1950s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture evaluated hundreds of fiber crops and determined that kenaf was the best option for tree-free papermaking in the U.S. The fact that kenaf fibers have many similarities to wood fibers increased its potential adaptability to the current system. But despite the government's endorsement, kenaf production has developed very slowly. Related to hibiscus, kenaf is a fast-growing plant that can be harvested annually over several months, then compressed and stored for up to four years. Farmers in the South are already growing it, without the need for expensive and damaging pesticides. It yields far more fiber per acre than a comparable-size tree plantation.

The amount of U.S. agriculture currently dedicated to kenaf is still minuscule, although it is a popular papermaking furnish in other parts of the world. But it has great possibility as an environmentally sustainable crop that can bring new life to rural economies shattered by the demise of their original industries. In fact, the more than 40 jobs that growing kenaf has brought to Tallahatchie County, Mississippi have been part of revitalizing one of the most economically depressed areas in the U.S.

Currently, domestic kenaf paper is produced on rented time in paper mills dedicated to other furnishes. Pulping kenaf requires less energy than pulping wood and it is more easily bleached with totally chlorine-free processes.


Hemp is a versatile, invaluable plant used all over the world for many life-sustaining needs such as oil for food and fuel, edible seeds, and fiber for textiles, rope and paper. In fact, the first paper back in second-century China was made from hemp. But, in an attempt to suppress the cultivation of hallucinogenic marijuana, hemp was outlawed in the U.S. in the 1930s. Despite government assurance that the law would not curtail fiber and seed production from industrial hemp (a distinctly different, non-hallucinatory plant) and a government program promoting the farm production of industrial hemp as a patriotic duty during World War II (because imports for textiles and ropes had been cut off by the war), federal drug agents harassed fiber producers so relentlessly that its production died out in the 1950s.

A few hemp papers are currently imported into the U.S. from European and Asian sources. Some determined entrepreneurs have arranged for hemp-pulp shipments from other countries in order to make high quality paper here. But there is a growing movement to rescind outdated prohibitions against growing such a productive and useful plant. Efforts are particularly strong in Kentucky, which provided much of the seed for hemp when it was still legal. Now that Kentucky's current predominant crop, tobacco, is falling out of favor, farmers in that state are looking back to their past for the possibility of a promising future.

Both Hawaii and Vermont passed initiatives in 1996 to permit studies of the feasibility of growing industrial hemp. The American Farm Bureau Federation voted overwhelmingly in favor of "research into the viability and economic potential of industrial hemp production in the U.S.," including planting test plots. Canada is quickly lowering barriers to growing it at test sites.

Other Crops

Some papers, mostly imported, are available made from other crops, as well. These include sugar beet and corn by-products as well as algae and bagasse (sugar cane). There are also papers made from tropical grasses, including bamboo. There is concern about whether the Asian bamboo can be guaranteed to be grown sustainably, rather than encouraging damage to more indigenous forests.


More than 200 million tons of cereal straw are dumped or burned in open fields each year. None of that is necessary because all of the straw could be pulped and used for paper, if the proper technology and infrastructure were in place. In fact, agricultural residue could replace a significant amount of trees for newsprint and printing and writing paper and solve a vexing agricultural and air-quality problem at the same time.

One of the advantages of pulping wood, welcomed even in the 1800s, is that trees provide their own "storage unit." They do not require a seasonal harvest time and form a compact "bundle of fibers" for transportation and production. These advantages encourage centralized production facilities. Pulping agricultural residues reverses that system. Although the cyclical harvest times of straw and other crops hampered paper production 150 years ago, modern harvest methods can compact bales and wrap them in protective covers that allow year-round storage. But their greater bulk encourages more local and labor-intensive facilities, thereby aiding local rural economies. Pulping from agricultural residues also does not require new land to be put into production and the lighter fiber colors are more easily bleached with totally chlorine-free processes.

Small quantities of paper made from agricultural residues (some of it combined with postconsumer recovered paper to produce a recycled blend as well) are already available on the market. But with sufficient investment, the potential for these papers is immense. Two private companies funded a successful test of newsprint partially made from agricultural residues, with the support of major West Coast newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee, and the western edition of the New York Times.


No matter what the furnish, paper will continue to need to be recycled. Once recovered paper reaches the mill, it must be pulped to prepare the fiber for recycling. In some cases, recovered paper can be dumped directly into a beater, a huge tank that separates the paper fibers by simply washing them like a giant mixer. But most recycling mills use some form of deinking in order to remove the inks, laser and copier toner, and contaminants such as labels, glues, plastic windows, paper clips and other materials. Modern deinking combines processes that wash, separate, sieve, tumble and rotate the fibers. When completed, the clean, usable fiber is piped to the pulper or the papermaking machine, while the excess materials are skimmed off or dropped through centrifugal force into a "sludge" that is then burned for fuel, otherwise used or landfilled.

Some recycling mills have integrated their deinking system with a paper machine, which means the recycled pulp is piped directly to the machine. But most are non-integrated: they have open pulpers which can accept fibers and pulp from many sources. They often buy the virgin portion of their paper furnish on the open market, as semi-dry bales of rough fiber sheets, and dump it into the pulper with the recycled fiber.

U.S. printing and writing paper, taken as a whole, currently averages just over 10% recovered content (many papers have none, some have 100%). But this American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) statistic includes preconsumer tonnage, the scraps left over from production, converting and printing processes before the paper ever reaches consumers. The amount of postconsumer fiber (recovered from offices and homes), by far the greatest amount of fine paper being disposed of, in printing and writing paper is much lower. Clearly, the amount of recycled content in printing and writing papers can and should be far higher.

Is Deinking A Problem?

Deinking removes inks, dyes and other contaminants from recovered paper, as well as fibers too small to be incorporated into new paper. For printing and writing paper, between 20 and 30% of the original scrap paper ends up as paper sludge after deinking.

Although deinking is not a totally benign process, most of its environmental problems stem from what is added to the paper when it is made the first time around or from how it is used before it's collected for recycling. In order to solve environmental problems caused by paper disposal, we need to eliminate the toxic materials used in inks and dyes, and discontinue the use of chlorine for paper bleaching.

Deinking is primarily a mechanical process. The only potential area of environmental concern stems from the chemicals added to clean the scrap paper. In the past, recycling mills have used toxic solvents and detergents, but state-of-the-art deinking systems no longer require these. The caustics, detergents and surfactants used in deinking are not considered to be toxic chemicals by the EPA. Although some end up in the sludge, the rest end up in wastewater, where they are neutralized with hydrochloric and sulfuric acids. The resultant chemical reaction produces harmless salts such as sodium chloride or sodium sulfate.

The major source of paper sludge contamination comes from the dyes added to the paper by manufacturers and inks added by printers, as well as organochlorine contaminants added in the bleaching process by paper producers.

Heavy metal contamination from inks is one of the most serious problems in disposing of paper sludge. Over the years, the printing industry has worked to reduce some toxic elements of printing inks. For example, lead from printing inks, which accounted for 12% of all the lead in the municipal waste stream in 1970, now makes up less than 1%. Other environmentally toxic metal pigments such as arsenic, cadmium, zinc, manganese, mercury, potassium, copper, chromium and nickel show up in sludge because they are still used to make some printing inks.

Another of the toxics that continues to show up in paper sludge is polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These come almost exclusively from the 44 million pounds of PCBs used by carbonless paper manufacturers between 1957 and 1971. Although not used after 1971, they are still showing up in wastepaper from offices cleaning out old files. A smaller potential source of PCB contamination in papers is the 50,000 pounds used in printing inks between 1968 and 1971.

The other major hazard in paper sludge is organochlorine contamination from the original paper bleaching process. This problem is compounded if the deinking mill itself uses chlorine or a derivative in the bleaching of recycled paper. Some recycled paper mills are leaders in avoiding the use of chlorine and chlorine derivatives.

Most deinking sludge currently ends up in privately owned landfill sites, although some mills are allowed to use municipal landfills. The sludge is about 40% solids. A few mills burn deinking sludge, which eliminates 75% of its volume. However, the 25% that is left contains virtually all the toxic materials contained in the original sludge (including all the heavy metals), and requires special handling. In addition, incineration results in toxic air emissions which must then be controlled. Several mills use the sludge as fertilizer. The major danger with this disposal method is organochlorine and heavy metal contamination. Other alternative methods for sludge disposal include using it as a carrier for agricultural pesticides and herbicides by drying and pelletizing it. This is obviously a potential environmental hazard, since it involves adding potentially toxic pesticides and herbicides to an already contaminated carrier.

Despite these potential problems from sludge, deinking is a more benign and environmentally sound process for handling used paper than either landfilling or incineration. Since virtually all of the sludge problems stem from contaminants in the paper before it comes back for recycling, those same contaminants exist in paper that is landfilled or burned. However, the toxics and pollution from inks, dyes and chlorine cannot be controlled in a landfill, where the paper is spread throughout the area. In incinerators, they become concentrated in either toxic air emissions or hazardous ash, which then must be landfilled. When, instead, the paper is recycled, the potential problems are reduced to a comparatively small, solid mass which then can be handled with more stability.

There are also some recycled papers on the market that are produced from postconsumer, non-deinked paper. While certainly the most environmentally-sound paper available, it will never take over more than a small share of the market, since manufacturers can only use the "cream of the crop" clean postconsumer waste in order to make this paper.

The Environmental Benefits of Recycling

In the early 1970s, an EPA study for Congress concluded that using one ton of 100% recycled paper saves 4,100 kwh of energy (enough to power the average home for six months) and 7,000 gallons of water. It also keeps more than 60 pounds of pollution out of the air. Paper mills have become much more efficient since that time, but recycling paper still results in far less resource and environmental demand than making virgin paper.

That one ton of recycled paper also saves 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space, which is increasingly important as many local landfills near their capacity. Because size, height and usable parts of trees vary, it is hard to estimate exactly how many trees go into making a ton of recycled paper, but paper industry representatives have estimated that one ton of recycled paper saves approximately 17 trees.

In 1995, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), through its Paper Task Force, compared the energy requirements and environmental releases from 100% recycled fiber-based and 100% virgin fiber-based systems. EDF used a comprehensive approach which considered many life-cycle aspects to better assess the full range of environmental consequences. For recycling operations, this included collecting, transporting and processing recovered paper, as well as disposal of residuals from recovery facilities and paper manufacturing (sludge). For virgin paper operations, it included harvesting trees, transporting logs, debarking and chipping, as well as collection of the paper after its use and transport and processing at landfills and waste-to-energy incinerators. For both systems, it included appropriate pulping and manufacturing processes. EDF's analysis showed "clear and substantial environmental advantages from recycling all the grades of paper" they examined, including printing and writing paper, and listed more than a dozen parameters.

Recycled paper also needs less bleaching than virgin paper. Because the paper was bleached in its first production cycle, it can use less bleach and more easily avoid chlorine bleaches the second time around. Several recycling mills are processing their paper chlorine-free (PCF), although the paper probably still carries some chlorine from its original production. However, few of these mills then combine the PCF fiber with TCF virgin pulp. Since many buy their virgin pulp on the open market, it is reasonable to assume that much of it is still chlorine-bleached.

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