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You could argue that the most ecologically sound paper would be one that is totally chlorine free and 100% recycled from paper previously made from agricultural residue (produced with no pesticides, of course). Naturally, in this pristine ecological paper vision, you would need only a small amount of paper, since for most communications you would use e-mail, Internet and intranet web sites, interactive CD-roms, conferencing video technology, electronic billboards and kiosks, or video-phones (somehow magically produced without their attendant toxics).

But only pieces of that picture are available today. We still use lots of paper and there is very little that meets all three criteria of totally chlorine-free, tree-free and recycled. Unfortunately, that has led to arguments among some of the most ardent supporters for each kind of environmentally sound paper.

"Totally chlorine-free is best!" some contend. "We have to develop demand for pure TCF virgin paper before worrying about postconsumer content."

"We don't want paper with tree-flesh!" yell others, denouncing recycled content (made from wood-pulp wastepaper) in otherwise tree-free papers.

"Who cares about bleaching?" question still others. "We're just concerned about creating markets for recovered paper."

How do you, as a buyer or advocate, make sense out of the competing arguments? How do you choose "the most" environmentally sound paper?

The Best Strategy Is Alliance

Competition between recycled, tree-free and chlorine-free papers is self-destructive. It also shows a lack of clarity about how to develop an environmentally sustainable paper production system. Particularly at this time, when the market share for environmentally sound paper is still very small (recycled is most developed and has never topped much more than 10%), the only reasonable strategy for promoting its development is alliance. Here's why:


Tree-free papers develop fiber sources that provide alternatives to wood. Some tree-free pulps come from agricultural crops grown specifically for papermaking, such as kenaf, bamboo or hemp. (These crops have many other uses, too.) Other tree-free pulps come from agricultural residues such as straw, bagasse (sugar cane), and cotton linters. Some agricultural residues have long had markets, such as cotton linters that are regularly incorporated into cotton-content paper. But most have traditionally been burned, dumped or wasted.

Many tree-free fibers have been used for papermaking in the past and are still widely used today in other parts of the world. They are being reintroduced to North American paper buyers as part of a movement to relieve the commercial and industrial demand on forests, in order to conserve forests' many other ecological benefits.

But tree-free papers may be bleached with toxic chemicals and they do not assure a recycling system.

Chlorine-Free Is A PROCESS

"Chlorine-free" has nothing to do with the source of fiber for a paper. Rather, it describes the chemicals used to bleach pulp and their residue in subsequent papermaking. When virgin paper is bleached in non-chlorine processes, it can be called "totally chlorine-free" (TCF). (A paper may also be chlorine-free if it is not bleached at all.)

Because bleaching with chlorine and chlorine derivatives is still pervasive in North American paper mills, recycled paper must be assumed to include scrap paper that was previously chlorine-bleached. Even when a recycling mill uses no chlorine products in its processes, minute traces of chlorine cannot be ruled out in finished paper made from recovered paper, even though the amount is minuscule compared to that in virgin paper. Therefore, recycled paper made in non-chlorine environments is most accurately labeled "processed chlorine-free" (PCF).

Chlorine residue in PCF recycled paper has nothing to do with recycling per se. It would not be present if our traditional papermaking processes were totally chlorine-free.

Recycling Is A SYSTEM Necessary For Sustainability

Whether paper is made from trees, crops, agricultural residues, algae or banana stalks, it needs a system for appropriate disposition once it is used and no longer needed. If we keep producing paper, from whatever source, without recycling it after its use, we are wasting resources, including causing more trees to be cut or more cropland to be planted.

Conservatree has always argued for postconsumer content requirements and opposed substitution of alternative materials, such as sawdust, in order to foster development of a functioning system for recycling paper. The largest amount of paper potentially available for recycling, that from end-users, has not been recovered in the past. Instead, it has gone to landfills and incinerators. Now more effort is going into developing sourcing and feeder systems from offices, separation at materials recovery facilities (MRFs), delivery to dealers and mills  because postconsumer content has become expected in recycled paper. The mills and technical researchers, in their turn, have been developing, improving, and installing new deinking technologies to handle the difficulties presented by the inks, stickies, laser print and other contaminants present in postconsumer materials.

Recycling has nothing to do with what fiber was originally used in the paper or with what bleaching process was used. If it contains tree-fibers, that is only because our present papermaking system relies on wood. If it carries trace levels of chlorine, that's because North American paper mills rely on chlorine and chlorine compounds for bleaching.

Recycling is simply a system that is necessary no matter what kind of paper we are making.

Putting It All Together

Some advocates argue that market demand must first be created for TCF or tree-free papers before worrying about including recycled content. Conservatree supports 100% TCF virgin papers and 100% tree-free papers at this point in market development, when awareness of their importance is just beginning in the general population.

But advocates must understand that all these types of environmental papers still need development. Despite more market share and more availability than papers that are tree-free and chlorine-free, recycled paper is not home-free. The recycling system is still precarious, as the closing of new deinking mills because of technological and market problems makes painfully clear.

Chlorine-free and tree-free papers will need recycling just like any other paper. To keep the system going, that means they need to include recycled material as soon as possible, too. In fact, many already do.

We cannot turn off wastepaper collection and recycling technology research and implementation now and expect them to be ready and waiting when we're ready to turn them on some time in the future, at a "perfect" time in each paper's development. Recycling is a "just-in-time" system. It must be on-going and continually developing in order to build to a truly environmentally sustainable production system.

Right now, there are recycled papers that are processed chlorine-free, and there are papers that combine tree-free pulp with recycled content. There are even a couple of papers that put all three together, such producers as Arbokem and some of Costa Rica Natural Paper's text and cover lines. There are more papers combining all three on the horizon, but clearly many grades will not present that alternative for a while. Until then, buyers should choose papers that maximize the environmental characteristics as much as possible. But keep in mind that no matter what the fiber or the processing, recycling has to underpin the production system.

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