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