Three eco-responsibility variables for detecting this
Both virgin-fibre and recycled paper, when used in the right proportions in industry, can be sustainable. The key lies in striking a balance between them to achieve maximum sustainability of each one and to reduce the impact on the planet. If previously we analysed four variables for ascertaining which type of paper is “friendlier” in each area or process that affect this “evaluation” of the material, what aspects of a manufactured paper should we take into account to determine how sustainable it is?
Here, the question of the eco-responsibility of paper comes into play which, put simply, is similar to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in business, albeit applied to sustainability. This term refers to reducing the negative impacts of the paper manufacturing and consumption, particularly on the environment. We must be more aware of what lies behind each product and take responsibility for each and every one of the uses we make of these products in our daily life.
Therefore, in the case of paper, we can see what decisions were taken in the manufacturing process for it to be more sustainable than other options. We will now go on to describe the three main variables that determine this sustainability.
Origin of fibres
The first factor to be addressed to begin to establish a paper’s degree of eco-responsibility is the source of the fibres. Materials with 100%-recycled fibre may be Post Industrial Waste (PIW), obtained from the trimming of coils, or Post Consumer Waste (PCW), when they come from recycling containers following use by consumers.
Certified virgin fibre can also be used to manufacture paper, whose provenance is specific plantations for obtaining wood for industrial use, and which is FSC- or PEFC-endorsed; or it may be uncertified, the least recommendable materials, since the origin of the raw material used to manufacture is not declare. Finally, there are papers manufactured with variable percentages of both virgin and recycled papers.
The existence of sustainable forests is important in ensuring that wood is always certified and that its origin, i.e. these tree “farms”, can be demonstrated. Not only do they avoid the deforestation of natural areas, they also generate wealth in the area. Thanks to this, forest surface area in Europe has increased by 44,000 km² in the space of 10 years, 30% more than in 1950. Complementary to this, these forest plantations do not need to be irrigated, unlike other currently fashionable alternative fibres such as linen or hemp. Therefore, no additional expense in terms of water is required for maintenance.
Then there is another added benefit for the planet: recent studies have shown that young trees capture more CO2 than mature ones. They need greater resources than adult specimens to grow, meaning that they capture more carbon dioxide, which is required for this process. As sustainable forests are renovated on an ongoing basis, this effect is maximised.
Fibre bleaching system
One second aspect to be taken into account in determining how eco-responsible a paper it is the way in which the fibres were bleached. Chlorine and the derivatives that are used to give a paper its white and pure colour cannot be separated from water: they go with it wherever this natural resource is disposed of.
Papers classified as ‘Elemental Chlorine-Free’ guarantee that both virgin and recycled fibres have been bleached by means of chlorine dioxide or derivatives, but never with elemental chlorine (in gaseous state), substantially reducing the hazards of the dioxins.
In the case of ‘Totally Chlorine-Free’ materials, 100% of the virgin fibres (whether they come from trees or alternative sources) have been bleached without chlorine components. The TCF certification cannot be used for recycled papers, since the source of the fibres is unknown.
Thirdly, the ‘Processed Chlorine-Free’ denomination means that the recycled fibres were not bleached with chlorine derivatives. PCF papers are not TCF, since the way that the recycled fibres were initially bleached is unknown.
Finally, and aside from the bleaching process, the way in which a paper is manufactured says a lot about whether or not a material is environmentally-friendly. The use of renewable energies, the carbon footprint they leave on the planet and other environmental management aspects must be factored in here. How can we ascertain this? A paper’s certificates and seals can give us a clue.
First of all, we can look at the ISO International standards, since some of them focus on sustainability. More specifically, a paper that is compliant with the ISO 14001, ISO 45001 or ISO 50001 standards will be more environmentally-friendly.
Secondly, there is the question of energy. Energy can be renewable or fossil. Of course, paper mills that use mainly clean sources as their main electricity input will be much more eco-responsible. Added to this we have the compensation or the reduction in the CO2 emissions produced in this manufacturing process. The paper-making industry’s objective must be to minimise the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, and when it can be reduced no further, offset the carbon footprint, for example by planting trees.
Finally, other factors to be taken into account in the industrial process are the EMAS. It is the EU Eco-Management and Audit Scheme. This environmental management tool, a European Union regulation in which participation is voluntary, acknowledges organisations that have promoted an Environmental Management System (EMS) in their facilities and have taken on a commitment to continuous improvement, which is verified by independent audits.