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Paper and the Sustainability Issue

Paper companies are on the warpath, and for graphic communication providers, that might not be a bad thing. Tired of being portrayed as the evil ogre in the issue of sustainability, paper makers and their allies are maintaining a major offensive to educate corporate brands and consumers, as well as government officials, on what they feel is a general misperception on paper's impact on the environment, especially when compared to electronic/digital communications.

"Every decision to communicate has some impact on the environment," states an International Paper brochure from 2009, titled "Down to Earth: A Practical Look at Environmental Issues and Trends," and that is exactly the message the paper industry is looking to promote. Electronic communications, while perceived as more eco- friendly than paper, has its own environmental footprint, often ignored in the pixel vs. paper discussion.

In the very near future, Two Sides US, a non-profit organization that promotes the use of responsible production, use and sustainability of print and paper, is launching a major initiative involving letter writing, phone calls, and email to persuade major companies in three sectors to stop using "unjustified claims to get customers to use electronic communications instead of paper," says Phil Riebel, president and COO, Two Sides US.

The organization, which is the U.S. branch of a worldwide organization that started in the U.K. in 2008, launched its website in January. Its more than 1,000 members span the entire paper and pulp supply chain, and include graphic communication printers and vendors. "The idea for Two Sides came about because we wanted to demonstrate the positive side of paper, while also promoting responsible end use," says Riebel. "Our message is not only to tout the environmental benefits of using paper, but also to make sure that people get the message to use paper responsibly, as they should with any product."

Two Sides is banging the drum to dispel the myth that using electronics is always better than using paper. "We are getting bombarded with anti-printing and anti-paper messages from companies like banks and utilities, who are promoting electronic transactions over paper billing," says Riebel. "People need to be cautious when they hear that message, because a lot of the claims are misleading. Going electronic is not necessarily how we are going to save the planet. When we communicate, we have to look at the lifecycle of all these products, and how we use them, whether it's paper or electronic."

Paper or Pixels?

How does paper compare with pixels in the sustainability tripod of reduce, reuse, and recycle? Paper advocates would argue that their product has some very clear advantages.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 20 percent of electronic products, including computers, keyboards, monitors, and television sets, were recycled in 2010. Computers and the like are chock full of plastics and hydrocarbons, as well as mined metals and minerals, such as silver, gold, and palladium. To manufacture one computer and monitor, it takes 530 pounds of fossil fuel, 48 lbs. of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water.

"There is no such thing as a "green" pixel for most digital media," says noted sustainability guru, Don Carli. "Those promoting pixels as being more environmentally friendly are guilty of greenwashing (a public relations tactic that companies use to claim they are engaging in environmentally friendly practices, to sell a product or manipulate public opinion). When it comes to sustainability, it's not just about not polluting, it's also about insuring resources are renewable—not stripped from mountaintops and never to be used again."

Carli is referring to the staggering amount of electricity required to run digital equipment—from computers to cell phones to tablets, and the deforestation that could occur as a result. A recent EPA report states that 1.5 percent of energy consumed in U.S. is from electronic data centers, a rate that will only increase as we become more and more dependent on digital communications. The pulp and paper industry consumes about 0.7 percent.

Finding Innovation

"As a paper mill, Mohawk relies heavily on natural resources," says Jane Monast, Director of Communications, Mohawk. "We have been the first in our industry on many environmental initiatives and we believe that business and industry have the creative capital and financial incentive to find the most innovative solutions to natural resource depletion, climate change, alternative energy development, and waste management.

Mohawk, a member of Two Sides, "supports the dissemination of knowledge to consumers who are making decisions every day about the way they communicate," says Monast. "Informed businesses and consumers should know that email isn't necessarily a more environmental way of communicating than using a letter printed on a recyclable and sustainable product like paper."

Laura Thompson, director of sustainability for Sappi Fine Paper North America, notes "Paper is about as responsible as it gets when it comes to the manufacture of materials. It is made from a renewable resource—trees, and uses high levels of renewable energy, so we have a low carbon footprint. The other great thing about paper is how recyclable it is; it is recycled more than any other product."

The official 2011 recovery rate for paper is 66.8 percent, reports Thompson. "All of this fiber gets put to use in a wide variety of products, both domestically and overseas,' she says. "In fact, about 35 percent of all current paper consumption in North America is created with recycled fiber at various levels of recycled content."

One of the ironies in the sustainability arena is that the amount of chemicals and energy required to turn recycled fiber into high-end stock is counter-productive to the reason we recycle in the first place. Also, recycled fiber does not have an infinite life span – there will always be a need for fresh "virgin" fiber entering the supply chain. Fortunately most mills harvest wood from well managed forests.

Fighting Perception

Paper companies, and printers, too, for that matter, are fighting the perception they are not friends of the environment with certification from groups such as the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent organization that promotes sustainability with its chain-of-custody certification. The FSC seal of approval demonstrates to those in the know that the wood used to make the paper came from a managed forest, instead of, for example, protected trees in the Amazon Rainforest.

"Major American brands are looking to partner with credible organizations; we find that the best way to support environmental claims is through third-party certification," says Lisa Berghaus, manager of marketing communications for Monadnock Paper Mills, a maker of specialty papers.

Monadnock, like other paper companies, is also focused on offering customers a wide range of environmentally friendly products. "We've developed various products with the environment in mind to replace less sustainable substrates, such as PVC," says Berghaus. "We offer paper products that can are not petroleum based; we call them the 'Un-Plastic.' For example, for the horticulture market we offer paper-based tags that are highly durable, can withstand weather, and look beautiful. We are trying to give brand owners options."

In 2010, Domtar launched a broad campaign called PAPERbecause ( to communicate the importance of paper to business and opinion leaders. "This campaign gives Domtar a platform to show how paper—a sustainable, renewable and recyclable product—fts so nicely into our lives," says Lewis Fix, Vice-President of Sustainable Business and Brand Management at Domtar. "Domtar is a leader in sustainable paper production, and we promote the responsible use of paper. PAPERbecause reminds people of why paper is so vital today."

Inside its mills, "an environmental manager tracks everything that goes in or out, and everything in between," says Berghaus. "We are an ISO 14000 certified company, which means we have to quantify every operation, from the raw materials coming in to waste water leaving the plant. We have to be in compliance from top to bottom; we've made a commitment to reduce our overall environmental impact."

Sappi's sustainable cradle-to-grave approach has it focused on getting off fossil fuels. The average paper company uses about 65 percent carbon neutral renewable resources to run its mills; Sappi tops out at 85 percent. "We are very focused on getting off of fossil fuels, and lowering our carbon footprint even more," says Thompson.

As for the paper vs. pixel argument, paper manufacturers are merely looking for a fair fight.

"We recognize that we are in an ever evolving digital world," says Thompson. "We believe there are good reasons to print, there are more emotional connections with print as opposed to digital. Ultimately, though, we try to teach our customers that there's an environmental impact to electronics, to choose media carefully and to choose responsibly."