These days, there’s no shortage of sustainable paper products on the market. Here are some tips on how you can make the best choice
Despite the widespread use of email and other digital communication technology, businesses today still rely on paper for printing and writing. The average office disposes of 350 pounds of waste paper per employee per year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The good news is that, as a result of the efforts of environmentally concerned citizens, corporations and paper producers, today’s marketplace offers buyers an array of sustainable paper products.
Yet, with so many environmental claims, choosing sustainable office paper can be a challenge. That’s why it’s important to know the environmental issues surrounding the manufacture, use and disposal of paper. By understanding these lifecycle-based impacts, you can be better equipped to evaluate, compare, and make more informed paper purchasing decisions. Tools such as ecolabels and paper calculators can also help identify the most responsible office paper for your company.
Why buy sustainable paper?
For some purchasers, buying sustainable paper may be a new initiative. For others, it may already be part of their company’s common practice. Whatever your company’s purchasing policy, making sustainable choices for paper products offers multiple benefits—for the environment and your organization.
Such purchases can benefit a company’s bottom line. Although greener paper may be a slightly more expensive purchase upfront, purchasing it will create market demand and help bring down prices over time.
Companies that choose to use environmentally preferable paper can benefit from reputation enhancement. Buying cleaner, more responsible paper is healthier for a company’s reputation and can provide a competitive advantage. Environmentally preferable paper supports energy-efficient production, which reduces pressure on non-renewable resources and minimizes greenhouse gas impacts. The practice also produces less harmful effluent (liquid waste) thereby minimizing impacts on fish and waterways, helps control air emissions and pollution and produces less solid waste.
Sustainable paper choices also help minimize potential negative impacts on forest resources through the more efficient use of fibre, as well as fibre production best practices. Reusing and recycling waste paper fibre is important, as wood fibre can be re-used about six times. Recycling post-consumer fibre preserves and reduces pressure on woodlands and ecosystems and diverts waste from landfills. Forestry certification chain-of-custody programs ensure sources and levels of recycled fibre content are verified and virgin fibre content comes from a certified, sustainable forest or meets other minimum sourcing criteria. Sharing these benefits with stakeholders demonstrates a company’s commitment to sustainable practices.
What to consider
The pulp and paper industry has historically had a significant environmental footprint. But paper production has come a long way, and there are many producers today that have found innovative ways to reduce harmful impacts. Here are some key considerations for organizations when sourcing sustainable paper:
• Recycled content: reusing waste paper fibre is one of the key means by which environmental impacts may be reduced. Look for third-party certifications of recycled content.
• Reduced water and air emissions: paper producers must be able to demonstrate their mills’ lower contribution to polluting emissions and overall toxicity. Multi-attribute standards/certifications consider these parameters in their performance criteria.
• Efficient energy and water use: energy reduction and water management plans help reduce water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
• Sustainable forest management: sustainable forests preserve biodiversity, protect forests, reduce climate change, maintain forester qualifications, adhere to labour standards and minimize community impact. Look for third-party certifications.
• Reduced waste: environmentally preferable paper produces a lower volume of solid waste in the production process.
How important are ecolabels?
The printing and writing paper sector bears a confusing array of ecolabels—from third-party sustainability certifications to self-declared marks and badges. When researching ecolabels, look for those that are third-party certified and research to ensure the ecolabel matches the values of your company and its vision for sustainability. Not all ecolabels conform to the same principles or set of standards, so it’s critical to know the differences between those available.
Third-party certifications are carried out by an impartial, independent organization for conformity to a specific standard. Third-party certification is considered most credible due to its objectivity and rigor.
By contrast, first-party certification is a self-declaration whereby an organization providing a good or service makes its own environmental claims, without third-party substantiation.
Multi-attribute certifications consider every phase of a product’s lifecycle, including the environmental impacts of harvesting the raw materials, the manufacturing process, the use of the product itself, distribution and disposal (or recycling/re-use).
Single-attribute certifications address one environmental impact category only, such as processed chlorine-free or recycled content. Single-attribute certifications can supplement and help strengthen multi-attribute certifications, particularly when the multi-attribute certification does not address certain environmental impacts for which single-attribute certifications exist.
Reduce paper use
Efficient use of paper has benefits beyond simply being good to forests, slowing climate change and protecting human health. It’s also good for the corporate bottom line. Successful paper programs can help companies save costs through better purchasing, use and disposal methods. The following tips can help your company get started:
• Go electronic: forego printing and develop electronic storage systems for email, document filing and other functions. Set your office’s default printer to a PDF creator.
• Design for less paper: create reports that may only live online, or design collateral that will use less paper.
• If you have to print, be efficient: select duplex print and/or print double-sided (modern laser printers have the ability to configure for this option). Print multiple pages per sheet.
Print in smaller fonts. Reduce the margins on your documents and expand the printable area of the page. Re-use paper that has only been used on one side or give that paper a second life by converting single-sided sheets into notepads.
Our society is still heavily dependent on printing and writing paper for day-to-day business. While the notion of a paperless office may be fully realized in the not-so-distant future, in the meantime, we can do our part to reduce the environmental impacts of paper by choosing greener, more sustainable varieties.
Angela Griffiths, Ph.D, is head of operations at UL Environment and executive director of the EcoLogo Program, part of the UL global network.