Paper; the grass is always greener.

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  • Date November 11th, 2010 18:40
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  • There are a slew of articles discussing the green merits of recycled paper vs. virgin paper produced from managed forests. An old debate, and one of the earliest discussion points in this whole green design paper malaise. These articles are mainly to defend and promote recycling actions, and to have us change our mindset towards maximizing our resources. All shouldered by that catchy slogan to 'save the trees'. But for me, these articles leave the question of why we are still using trees for paper at all totally unanswered. If your belief is that using recycled paper is the greenest option today, I’d like to point out that paper can be made out of almost any form of plant fiber, and trees are just about the worst option for that, managed or not. Paper as a word is itself derived from the Egyptian word papyrus. Random dinner table trivia for most of us, but the thing of note here is that papyrus is a plant, not a tree. In fact, paper used to be made primarily of grasses and leaves. It wasn’t until the early 20th century when demand for paper exceeded the available supply of purpose-grown grasses that people considered using wood pulp. People with a vested interest in timber were only too happy to sell their wood for this purpose, while simultaneously supporting the ban of the previously used primary paper pulp crop, hemp. Industrial hemp has been used for many purposes for thousands of years. Far from being solely used by granola crunching, woolen sock & sandal wearing tree-huggers, hemp has played a vital role in history. For example, prior to becoming revolutionaries, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both hemp farmers. Benjamin Franklin owned a mill that made hemp paper. The US Declaration of Independence? Drafted on hemp paper. How's that for your next family gathering small talk topic selection? Hemp has largely been banned in the USA since the 1950s, using paranoia based solely on it’s relation to its cousin plant marijuana. Thankfully many countries have since realized the error of this and have reinstated production of this valuable crop for paper, oils, and textiles. And with good reason, hemp paper is easily recyclable, and since it has far less chemicals in it than wood paper, is also safely biodegradable and compostable. Paper made of grasses requires much less processing than wood-derived paper, and is far better for the environment. Anyone who’s ever visited a pulp mill can attest to the unpleasant smells, but in addition to that, turning wood into paper also uses and releases harmful chemicals such as dioxin. The chemical process used to produce wood paper even make that paper less durable compared to grass fiber paper. It is one of the reasons paper currently use a degree of plant fibers instead of a 100% wood pulp. The acids used cause wood-based paper to yellow and become brittle. Paper produced before the 20th century often remains in excellent condition because it is not made with acid-treated wood pulp. But as the whole eco-movement is urging us to accept; let's be content with using 100% recycled paper. We're buddy-buddy with trees, and make a good step towards slowly turning things a-green. Well, get ready for one of those moments where something you were 100% sure off turns out to be not so true after all. A rude awakening for many of us [myself included], but recycled paper - especially recycled office paper - is not your best eco-friendly choice. It may often be the best and only choice, but your recycled paper is having a higher carbon footprint when compared to virgin paper from managed forests. How can that be? Well, it is the classic case of taking in account all factors when recycling paper: collection of the waste, transportation of the fiber, de-inking process, bleaching methods and chemical usages, disposal of the de-inking waste, energy efficiency (or lack thereof) in the production runs at the paper mills, transporting the recycled paper back to the stores, etc. These, among other factors, can make the carbon footprint of recycled papers double that of papers made from virgin fiber from sustainably managed forests. The key here is “sustainably managed.” Often the mill is close to the fiber supply, making virgin papers much kinder on the environment than papers using recovered fiber. Also, plenty of recycled fiber is shipped abroad to emerging economy countries to have it produced cheaply there, and shipped back to the western world to sell. So, if your options are conventional paper or recycled, that 100% recycled paper is still going to be your best option. For office paper, though, it's sounding like tracking down paper from regionally managed forests might actually be the greener option. Of course, the greenest option when it comes to office paper is to just plain-simple use less. It might seem like it's hard to reduce, but every little bit counts. If we all use just a little bit less paper, it has a big impact overall. Then again, reducing paper need in office scenarios is much easier to do than feared or assumed. For SGTH, in additional of having already donated our printers 4 years ago, we limit our paper usage to sketch pads only. These are made from 100% recycled, unbleached China-made paper. Most of our scribbles however are on the back of discarded A4 prints. We often get these when we meet with clients who - in good faith - print out our pdf documents as to review these. After we have gone over our presentations and submissions (which 99% of the time we do on screen…), we collect their prints for internal reuse. [Is there something like this in your business? What processes that normally rely on paper could you change to be tree free or even paper free?] With the rise of ebooks, email, and other digital media, demand for paper has been dropping. We would however be foolish to blindly accept digital as the way to go - stay tuned for next week's article for that myth debunking - and we would be even more naive to believe paper will ever be made obsolete. There is just something tactile, real and honest about the stuff, and its usage throughout the history of us-humans has made it an endearing part of our DNA it seems. Who does not love the feel of a book in hand? Where to go and what to turn to then? The green green grass of home my friend. Grasses such as hemp, switchgrass and kenaf can be grown on marginal land almost anywhere in the world, and make for excellent paper. They can also be made into paper much more cheaply and efficiently than wood pulp can, and since grasses are such fast growers, they have a much smaller environmental impact than harvesting & processing trees. Where the question seems to point one way, the sustainable solution is obviously pointing in an entirely different direction. The greenest option for paper is locally grown grasses. This can provide local jobs, help sequester carbon, reduce the amount of harmful dioxin entering our local waterways, and produce [with a very small carbon footprint] a higher quality paper. So then, I ask again: why are we still using wood for paper? Next week; What is greener; print or digital?
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