The Paper Lifecycle

In a recent article, we took an in-depth look into how e-waste is really complicating claims from paper atheists that eliminating print phone books alone will significantly reduce the impact on the environment (Dirty Little Environmental Secrets Print Haters Don’t Like to Talk About”). The comparison between the environmental impact of print and digital was quite frankly startling, despite what the initial perception maybe.

The fact is virtually every medium has some impact on the environment. While the obvious quick response from anti-phonebook supporter is that the print products are big environmental violators, and hence, everyone should go digital.  But one truly needs to look beyond the knee-jerk response to compare the very real issues of sources, manufacturing, transportation, use, and recycling for each medium before drawing such environmental conclusions.

For example, were you aware that Swedish researchers found that reading a newspaper for just 30 minutes online actually produces more CO2 per year per reader (35 KG) than reading a printed newspaper (28 KG)?? In printed news, the production of the paper itself is the greatest factor contributing to CO2 production. In online media, the energy used to power the computer while reading it, never mind the oversized impact of manufacturing the device itself, is the biggest contributors.

Since the prior article took a detailed look at the serious damage that e-waste causes, several industry critics challenged me to reveal the same for the paper used in producing a printed directory. No problem.  Here it is.

Overview:  The basic papermaking process has changed very little since it was first developed. However, over the last two centuries, major improvements and refinements have transformed modern papermaking into a highly sustainable, high tech industry with a significantly reduced environmental footprint.

Let’s go through the same basic steps as the e-waste article, from raw material to production to recycling, for paper products in general (not specific to the paper used in phone books unless otherwise noted).

Raw materials:  Paper can be made for nearly any type of tree, from hardwoods such as Oak, to softer woods, like pine.  To supply most papers primary ingredient (not print phone book paper), pulp trees specific for this use are grown, cut down, and replanted for future use. The trees are sustainably harvested and cut into logs for transportation to a mill for processing.

Trees are a fully renewable natural energy source.  According to the Environmental Defense Fund paper calculator, the typical pulp wood tree is 40 feet tall and 6 to 8 inches in diameter. The AF&PA (American Forest and Paper Association) and USDA Forest Service indicate that about 4 million trees are planted each day.  1.7 million of those come from the wood and paper industries.  This doesn’t include the millions that grow from seeds naturally.  With 13.2 million acres of US “old growth forest”, we can all breathe a lot easier. In total there are 12 million more acres of US forest land today, more now than 20 years ago.

To ensure that paper comes from sustainable sources, most printers will look for paper that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SSI), or the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). All three organizations track the chain of custody of raw materials, process materials and products from the forest to the customer, to certify that they are harvested manufactured using fiber from responsibly managed forests. Certified products are available for use in a wide range of applications including office papers, books, newspapers, magazines, annual reports, and even coffee cups.

Processing: Overall, the environmental cost of paper goes beyond the trees used to make it. Paper production has the single biggest environmental impact of any step in the paper making process, mainly because converting logs into paper requires large amounts of energy. Often, that energy comes from coal-fired power plants – one reason why the paper industry emits the fourth highest level of CO2 amongst all manufacturers. However, some paper manufacturers also use hydroelectric power and large amounts of biofuels (bark, harvest residuals, and other byproducts of the manufacturing process) to significantly improve overall environmental performance.

Specific to the paper used in phone books, it is considered a lightweight newsprint and the mills that manufacture these products have a significantly lower carbon footprint than those that make other grades of paper. For example, the carbon footprint of the Catalyst Paper mills making Yellow Pages paper is amongst the lowest in North America with 87% of the energy for their Canadian mills coming from renewable sources like hydro power and biomass fuel.

In a simplified description, the logs arrive at a factory to be debarked, chipped into small pieces, and then turned into pulp in one of two ways. To create chemical pulp, the woodchips or heated with chemicals to dissolve the lignin, an organic polymer found in plant material, and release the individual wood fibers. The second process, mechanical pulping (which is the predominant process used for phone book paper), grinds the wood with water. Pulp created mechanically retains its lignin, which is why papers made from these type’s of pulp yellow over time. The EPA estimates that more than half of the general papermaking sectors energy needs are met with renewable biomass fuels that are byproducts of the manufacturing process.

Papermaking:.  After bleaching it to make it white, the pulp is washed to improve brightness. From here, the pulp is mixed with other ingredients, formed into a sheet on a rotating screen, and fed through heated rollers that press it flat and dry. After this step, some papers received an additional top coating for improved smoothness and print ability. One 4′ x 4′ x 8′ cord of wood can be converted into about 90,000 sheets of letterhead paper.

Of note is that in the papermaking process virtually every part of the tree is used, including the bark, which is a renewable resource that can be burned to generate power for the mill. Approximately 99% of the chemicals used in the pulping process are recovered through internal recycling then burned to produce steam energy. Overall about 38% of the fiber used in the US for paper production comes from recovered sources.

One of the most significant changes has been the elimination of elemental chlorine from the bleaching process, referred to as elemental chlorine free (ECF). Findings show that elemental chlorine reacted with organic compounds in the wood which in turn lead to trace dioxins in the mills influent. Today virtually all modern paper mills produced pulp that is ECF or EECF. In addition some mills have elected to illuminate all chlorine containing compounds from the bleaching process for going totally chlorine free and using other chemicals such as oxygen, peroxide, or ozone. Since 1988, total North American paper industry dioxins emissions have been cut by 92%.

Specific to phone book paper, while the popular myth is that this industry is responsible for the neutering of forests, the reality is the Yellow Pages industry doesn’t knock down any trees for its paper!!! Let me repeat that – they don’t need to cut any trees for their paper supply.

Currently, on average, most publishers try to use about 40% recycled material (from the newspapers and magazines you are recycling curbside), and the other 60% comes from wood chips and waste products of the lumber industry mentioned above. If you take a round tree and make square or rectangular lumber from it, you get plenty of chips and other waste. Those by-products make up the other 60% of the raw material needed. Note that these waste products created in lumber milling would normally end up in landfills. Not only that, as wood chips decompose, they emit methane, a greenhouse gas closely associated with global warming. For a more detailed view of how phone book paper is made, go to http://www.yptalk.com/archive.cfm?ID=390&CatID=3

Packaging: after the paper is made, it is wound onto a giant role, then cut into different sheet and roll sizes and packaged.  Phone book paper is wound on jumbo roles which are then cut into 50” diameter rolls.

Transport: finish paper products are then packaged for shipping and transported to their ultimate destination. Printers and publishers alike want a paper source as close as possible to their plants to reduce the cost of shipping.  While fossil fuels are used to power the cargo ships and airplanes that transport most digital products/PC’s/mobile phones to their ultimate distribution site, about 56% of all new page paper actually travels via truck and 40% by rail.  About 90% of phone book paper is transported via rail.

Use: There is no question that paper in general, is one the most versatile materials on earth. Whether it’s newsprint, printing, and writing papers, packaging, household and toilet tissues, or industrial and special purpose papers, paper is a key part of our everyday life.  And once we have that paper available, it’s use doesn’t require electrical power, special communications connections, or an expensive device to make it work.

End-of-life:  Recycling is costly for all collected materials but is a key part of a sustainable society that recognizes items at the end of their useful life can contribute to the creation of new products.  After use, unlike electronic products, most paper of any type can be 100% recycled and utilized in the manufacturing of new paper. Paper can be recycled an average of five times. The AF&PA reports that 50% percent of all paper products are recycled, higher rate than metal, glass, or plastic.

The recycling of phone book paper represents a huge opportunity – upwards of some seven million pounds of clean, recyclable fiber could be available.  Many Asian countries such as China, which do not have the sustainable forest infrastructure that is in North America, are acquiring used paper to be shipped home for recycling to meet their paper needs.  When combined with the significant reduction in print newspapers, there is a growing shortfall in the availability of quality recycled paper in the U.S. Prices for this recycled paper are continuing to rise rapidly.

A footnote on the impact of paper vs. digital:

Eliminating all paper products such as phone books, and requiring everyone to move to the Internet doesn’t eliminate sustainability concerns – very few people are telling you that the Internet creates a massive, unseen carbon footprint. Based on a 2010 Dell study,

  • The manufacturing carbon footprint of a U.S. laptop is about 330 pounds CO2.  A typical phone book, produced at a Catalyst Paper mill has a footprint of about 1 pound CO2.
  • Distribution of the laptop is 110 pounds CO2 while the phone book is about 0.5 pounds CO2.
  • One year of a laptop’s life has a carbon footprint of about 90 pounds CO2 while a phone book has zero usage carbon footprint (and arguably more effective).
  • Disposal of the laptop creates another 70 pounds of CO2 while the phone book creates 0.5 pounds CO2.

Summary:

My favorite critics will all read this as a suggestion that we go back to the stone age and only use print.  Nonsense.  Electronic products such as PC’s, smart phone, Blackberry’s, tablets, etc. have become as integral a part of our lives and economy as paper has been.  But in what has become a throw away culture, specifically targeting phone books in an effort to offset a local governments recycling and landfill costs is first off unfair, and more importantly, ineffective as they represent such a minimum percentage of all the collection costs for all municipal waste.  It also isn’t the “green” move it would be seem to be when you look at the facts.

The publishers and the industry associations have established opt-out programs for their print products.  Give them a chance to work.  Perhaps government officials should be spending their time more wisely looking at those industries that are generating a much larger percentage of the content in a typical waste stream than phone books are, and asking why those industries have not stepped forward to participate in helping to recycle their products as the yellow page industry has…..

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