Paper Choices – Recycled, FSC, Green E and more

When Community Printers first started thinking about sustainability and paper choices, there were no recycled papers on the market with post-consumer waste. You could not find paper certified as coming from sustainable sources. Dioxin was the primary method of bleaching papers and it was polluting our nation's waterways. Curbside recycling existed in the imagination of a few environmentalists who were definitely on the outside.

Today there is a dizzying array of choices of paper made to minimize our impact on the environment. In fact that there are now so many choices that it is hard to know what to use. The truth is that there is no one "right" solution. We have created a matrix to help us navigate the paper choices available. This matrix looks at various environmental characteristics of different papers available locally and gives them points. The higher the score, the more sustainable  the paper choice. Please note that we also give a letter grade for availability.

Here are the criteria that we weigh in determining the sustainability of a particular paper:

There are two types of recycled paper content, Pre-Consumer Waste and Post-Consumer Waste. Pre-Consumer Waste comes from the paper and print manufacturing process. Post-Consumer waste comes from your home or work. Historically we have always reused the waste from the paper making process  so the most meaningful recycling is when we capture the waste coming from the consumer. For purposes of  our matrix, we only count Post-Consumer Waste. Initially recycled papers had between 10 and 30% post consumer waste content. As manufacturers learn more about making paper from recycled fiber that number is moving up.

20 years ago, virtually all of the paper that U.S. printers used was produced domestically. That is no longer true. Paper comes from as far away as Canada, Brazil, Italy and Indonesia. There are very few mills left in the west coast of the U.S.. In our paper grading system, we consider whether the paper is produced domestically or in foreign mills for two reasons. We think that the energy footprint from transporting the paper long distances should be taken into consideration and we believe that sustainability starts at home so we give a small edge to domestic producers. For domestic printers to be able to maintain a dynamic supply chain it is important to have local sources of commonly used papers.  That means in our matrix a 10% PCW paper made in the U.S. gets the same score as a 30% PCW paper made in Italy. Many of the highest PCW papers available are not produced in the U.S.. It takes substantial investment into new manufacturing technology to support making higher PCW recycled paper. Unfortunately the U.S. does not have a lot of new mills being built leaving much of this growing market to Asia and Europe.

Paper and Paper Pulp are a commodity that are traded on a global stage. As a result of expoloding international demand, the world's  forests are being put under increased pressure. In response international environmental organizations have established standards for sustainable forest management. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is a domestic chain of custody system that many paper companies in the United States prescribe to. While it is a reasonable standard combined with the current level of government oversight in the U.S., the problem is global in nature and requires a legitimate international standard to address the problems affecting the planet's rain forests. The Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) has made great strides in implementing a global standard. It is our view that FSC is an imperfect mechanism but represents the best avenue to protect the world's forests. FSC permits several levels of compliance based upon the percentage of FSC fiber in the sheet. We give more points for 100% confirmed FSC fiber content than we do for lower percentages.

Paper manufacturers are learning how to use alternative energy to produce paper. Some are creating co-generation plants to generate power from the biomass that they harvest. Others are using wind power to generate energy to power their mills. If a paper company is awarded Green-E certification, we count that in our matrix.

Some of the "greenest" papers that are being manufactured, turn out to be difficult to buy due to availability. In some cases, the papers are only available as mill orders. In other cases, we need to pay additional fees or have to buy minimum quantities in order to get the paper. Some of the mills that make recycled paper are relatively smaller players with less sophisticated distribution systems. We have graded the papers based upon their actual availability to us. By publishing a list of the criteria that is important to us, it is our hope that our suppliers will come up with better solutions to meet our customers needs.

Click here to see how we measure and compare the environmental characteristics of different papers.