Recycled paper is becoming more popular as people strive to minimise their impact on our precious Earth. But with so many different labels and terms used to describe paper, how do we know if what we’re buying really is as good as it seems?
In this post, I explain what the different certifications and labels used on recycled paper packaging actually mean, and hopefully make it easier for you to make an informed decision when you next go shopping for recycled paper.
It’s hard to imagine life without paper.
Millions of tonnes of paper are produced worldwide every year. We use it to distribute the daily news, to communicate with distant friends, to package our goods and filter our coffee. We even wipe our butts with it!
Paper manufacturing is BIG business. Unfortunately, it’s also a big problem.
The problem with paper
Every year, over 15 million hectares of our planet’s forest are cleared, and a huge contributor to this is logging and woodchipping for paper production.
Well over half of Australia’s original native forests have been demolished since European settlement, and the small percentage of old growth forests that still exist, remain under threat of continued logging.
The resulting loss of habitat and biodiversity is not the only problem. Forest destruction is a big contributor to increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and worsens global warming.
Traditional paper manufacturing processes also involve toxic chemicals such as chlorine and dioxins, which further pollute and harm the environment. In some countries, it’s not just the environment that is harmed, as indigenous people are displaced from their homes, and forests are illegally cleared for woodchipping.
Thankfully, more and more people are becoming aware of these issues and the demand for environmentally-friendly and ethically manufactured paper is increasing.
The problem with paper labelling
Unfortunately, the terms and labels used on paper packaging are varied and can often be misleading, and some papers labelled as “recycled” are actually not very different from 100% virgin paper.
I thought I would give you a bit of information about the various labels you might see on the paper pack, and hopefully make it a little easier for you to make an informed choice next time you go to buy your paper.
Here are some terms commonly used to label paper products:
This simply means that fibres extracted from existing products are reconstituted into new paper products. Paper labelled as “recycled” may contain any amount of recycled fibre – even less than 10%.
Recycled content may be:
Mill Broke – this is waste generated by the paper manufacturing process in the mill where woodchip is pulped to make paper. It is sometimes classed as pre-consumer waste, but this is material that never leaves the mill, and is usually reprocessed back into the manufacturing stream. Reprocessing this material is not technically considered recycling, although some companies try to pass it off as such.
Pre-consumer waste – this includes trimmings and offcuts produced during the manufacturing and conversion of mill paper into other products, such as office copy paper, production of paper cups, cartons etc. Depending on the source of information, it may also include a printer’s over-runs and damaged stock which was never actually sold. Basically, it is paper scraps arising from the manufacture of paper products that haven’t yet been used by consumers.
Post-consumer waste – this is paper that has actually served a purpose, and been used by consumers. It’s the stuff you or I put in our recycling bins at home – old newspapers, office documents, used envelopes, cardboard cartons etc. This is what most people think of when they think of paper recycling.
Benefits of Recycled Paper:
- Manufacturing paper from recycled fibre uses 50% less energy and up to 60% less water than manufacturing paper from virgin pulp.
- Using recycled fibre means less depletion of natural resources, and less waste going into landfill.
- Recycling paper reduces greenhouse gas emissions – paper sent to landfill releases methane as it breaks down. Methane gas is 20 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of global warming.
When choosing your paper, look to see if the type and percentage of recycled content is specified – obviously any recycled content is better than none, but the ideal paper is one which is 100% post-consumer-waste recycled.
The Forest Stewardship Council is an internationally-recognised non-government, not-for-profit organisation that was established in 1993 to promote responsible management of the Earth’s forests. When assessing and accrediting forests, the FSC takes into account social and economic factors as well as environmental issues. It tracks and monitors the whole process of production of wood products, from the forest, to the retail shelf, and bases it’s certification on 10 principles and criteria.
There are currently 3 types of FSC certification with respect to paper:
100% FSC – the paper must be 100% made from fibre sourced from FSC-accredited forest in an FSC mill.
Paper with this label is virgin paper with no recycled content.
FSC Mixed Source – the paper must contain at least 50% fibre from an FSC-certified forest, with the other 50% coming from “controlled sources”, which excludes illegally harvested wood, wood harvested from forests cleared for the purposes of starting a plantation or other non-forest use, harvesting that results in violation of people’s civil and traditional rights, and use of genetically modified organisms.
FSC Mixed Source paper may contain up to 90% recycled content, but it may also contain no recycled content at all.
FSC Recycled – this paper is made in an FSC-certified mill and contains at least 85% post-consumer-waste recycled content, and up to 15% pre-consumer-waste recycled content.
The Programme for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification is a European-based organisation that acts as an umbrella for many smaller national forestry schemes (including AFC).
Although proclaiming to represent environmentally-sound, sustainably managed practices, the scheme has been shown by organisations such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund to be defective, and products carrying this logo, may actually come from forests which are not ethically or sustainably managed!
This standard was developed to encourage organisations to address the environmental impacts of their activities. It is sometimes displayed on paper packaging as “proof” of good environmental practices.
However, the problem is that it’s essentially a management-systems standard, not a performance standard. The standard requires a company to identify operations and processes that have environmental impacts, to set objectives and targets to reduce any negative impacts, and to develop policies and a review system to monitor this, but there is no requirement for the company to actually improve its environmental performance.
Use of Chlorine
Chlorine is traditionally used as a bleach in the paper-making process. The chemical reactions that take place when chlorine is used in this manner result in the production of compounds known as organochlorines and dioxins, which are released with waste-water from the mills.
These compounds are extremely toxic, and have been linked to the development of a range of cancers as well as reproductive and developmental disorders.
Other methods for bleaching are now widely available, such as using oxygen-based compounds, which are much less harmful.
Chlorine-free paper labelling
TCF (totally chlorine-free) – no chlorine, or any chlorine derivatives, have been used to bleach the paper. This refers to virgin pulp, not recycled paper.
ECF (elemental chlorine free) – chlorine gas has not been used, but other compounds containing chlorine, such as chlorine dioxide have been used. This method reduces toxic by-products, but doesn’t completely eliminate them.
PCF (process chlorine free) – this refers to recycled paper and means that no chlorine was used in the recycling process (although depending on the source, the original paper may have been bleached with chlorine)
So, what sort of paper should we be buying?
100% post-consumer-waste recycled PCF paper is best!
If you must buy paper with virgin fibre content, look for one which has FSC certification and is TCF.
Do not buy “recycled paper” from companies that still log native forests, and use unsustainable and unethical practices to make their other kinds of paper.
The Wilderness Society currently recommends these 4 brands of white copy paper which are all available in Australia:
They are all 100% post-consumer-waste recycled and PCF.
Unfortunately none of these white papers are made in Australia, but the carbon impact of transporting them here is still less than that produced by forest destruction, and purchasing these products encourages ongoing recycling and green business, and sends a clear message to the other guys to lift their game.
If you’re looking for genuine 100% post-consumer-waste recycled paper that is manufactured here in Australia, you can’t go past Ecocern. Their paper is a lovely earthy grey-brown colour that is easy to print and draw on, and they also make a range of other paper products such as packaging and envelopes.
Little Deer Studio is committed to using 100% post-consumer-waste recycled paper.
The white paper I use to make my greeting card inserts is either Steinbeis Vision or Evolve 100% recycled as above.
I use Ecocern paper to make the pages for most of my spiral notebooks. The card inside my spiral book covers and bookmarks also comes from Ecocern.