Environmentally Friendly Printing: Is recycled paper the greenest choice for printing?

This is the second in a series of articles under the general heading of “Printing companies take their environmental responsibilities seriously“.

Industry guru Phil Lawrence asserts “It’s taken as a given that recycled paper is the greener choice, but there’s a carbon consideration to look at”.

When the printing industry or its customers want to make an environmental statement, the first and most obvious request is that the job be printed on recycled paper. The assumption is that recycled paper is beyond reproach when it comes to environmental credentials. Lawrence writes “Anyone who might have the gall to challenge the ecological value of recycled paper might just be taking on the world. Such investigation could be considered as socially irresponsible as questioning the merits of free public education.”

Phil mused that no-one had done any research to check whether recycled paper really is good for the environment, so he decided to undertake some research himself. He looked at the sustainability reports from a number of international paper manufacturers.

Following are his findings.

“Most companies have a number of individual production sites, each making different types of pulp and paper. I categorised the individual mills into their particular product areas. I ended up with three main types of pulp and paper production.

· Recycled. Any mill that produces paper from post-consumer recycled fibre.
· Separated. A paper mill that does not have its own pulp mill on the same site. Therefore, any pulp used must be transported to the mill. Virgin fibre (ie, not recycled).
· Integrated. Any mill that has its own pulp manufacturing on the same site.

“I didn’t concern myself with forestry arguments at this stage of the research, nor did I consider the emissions and effort required for the collection of recovered waste paper from the community. The only measure I used was the reported emissions it takes to produce one tonne of paper using energy that was either produced on site, or additional purchased energy from the country’s national grid.

“As a general rule, paper manufactured using recycled fibre emits around 800kg of CO2 per tonne of paper. In the case of a separated production facility where only virgin fibre is used, the emissions are around 500kgs per tonne. In a fully integrated pulp and paper mill, the emissions of CO2 can be very low, but on average around 200kgs of CO2 per tonne of paper. So it does beg the question, if recycled paper has always been considered so good for the environment, why has no one noticed that using recycled fibre produces so much CO2?

“Not everyone has been fooled by the myth of recycled paper. In a study carried out in Sweden at the University of Agricultural Sciences in 1997, Stig Bystrom and Lars Lonnstedt concluded that ‘increased utilisation of recycled paper is harmful for the environment.'”

Whenever a customer asks us for a quote (say for a book printing) using recycled paper, I point out that there are other factors that should be considered, and that these other factors may be far more important in evaluating the environmental friendliness of a job. Kainos Print has produced a white paper on environmentally friendly printing. It can be downloaded from our whitepapers page here.

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