Friday, May 02, 2008

Green Design: Where did that paper come from?

Yesterday, at a seminar on FSC certification and paper held by Kirkwood Printing, several paper companies and a representative of the FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) got together to discuss paper's impact on the environment. The discussion focused around such issues as responsible forestry, the paper companies' renewable energy initiatives, and why recycled paper isn't always the greenest option (1. there isn't enough fiber to meet demand; 2. the fibers downgrade over repeated recycling, which means you have to add new content to make it strong enough; 3. the recycled content gets sourced from all over the place). But all of this helped me realize something rather striking: a piece of paper's carbon footprint goes a lot deeper than the paper company itself.

This is the deal: Papermaking isn't just "have tree-make paper." It involves cutting down the tree, turning it into pulp, making paper from the pulp and then distributing the paper. Each of these steps requires a seperate set of trucks driving to a separate facility where each step happens, and most paper companies don't handle every step of the process. They buy their pulp from an outside source, which means that the pulp needs to be shipped to them, after being shipped from the forest. But for the life of me, I can't figure out where it gets shipped FROM.

Finch paper and Cascade (who specializes in recycled) was the only company at the event yesterday that mentioned that they source locally. Cascade actually collects and pulps the paper themselves for their sheets (they're in Quebec). Finch owns the forests that provide much of its pulp, and they buy the rest from small landowners in the New England area (mostly Maine and Vermont). Crane's, Mohawk, Monadnock, Neenah and Sappi were also there (among others), but they didn't have time to speak to the issue in detail. Although many of the companies' sites have extensive information about their environmental stewardship (and most are doing some seriously impressive stuff), I can't seem to find information specifically about where they buy their pulp.

What all of this means is that we now have yet another consideration as green designers: not only do we need to think about how much recycled content, where the paper itself comes from, etc. but we have to think further back along the supply chain: where did the pulp come from? Where were the trees harvested from? How were the rights of the workers and inhabitants of those forests impacted?

FSC certification helps with this by making sure that the forests paper comes from are being managed sustainably, and with respect to the rights of the workers and inhabitants of the forests. But what about the carbon footprint of the two steps prior to paper becoming paper? How can we make sure our paper is coming from responsibly-managed forests while also minimizing the carbon footprint all the way down the supply chain?

I don't have an answer. But I want one.

By the way, what can you do when you're choosing a paper for your next project? Here's a couple of ideas:

• Find paper companies that are as local to you as possible, and look for sheets that are FSC-certified, preferably with a significant amount of postconsumer recycled content.
• If you can, talk to the paper company about where they get the materials for their paper.
• Explore alternative-fiber papers, like cotton, kenaf, sugarcane and bamboo. These have their own carbon-footprint issues (after all, they don't grow sugar in New England, right?), but much of the alternative fiber used in these papers is taking material directly out of the landfill. Crane's sources its cotton from textile industry byproduct (i.e. cuttings that can't be used), and Neenah's sugarcane pulp (in the Environment line) comes from the material left over from the sugar refining process.
• Talk to your printer about what mills are closest to your area, and ask them for advice on the best sheet to use for your project.


Brian Cowie said...

Hi Dani,

Great post. The topic of forest certification whether its FSC or SFI are important and with the growing number of certified chain of custody distributors it is getting easier to purchase certified paper. Sourcing FSC fiber in N. America is difficult. Finch Paper as an example has a 160,000 acre forest, within the Adirondack Park, they harvest. Most FSC fiber is coming from forests around the world. SFI on the other hand is only sourced in N. America. Take a look at our site, We have good eco-info and you can buy in the quantities you need, less waste.

Melissa said...

I was at that seminar as well, and wanted to compliment you on your excellent synthesizing of a 3-hour seminar into the critical points of the presentation! ... And for asking important questions on your blog, as well.