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By Laura Thompson
Director, Sustainable Development/Sappi Fine Paper

Laura ThompsonWhen I assumed my current role with Sappi, our leadership made it clear from day one that we would not shy away from tackling tough issues. We made a commitment that our sustainability communications would be grounded in facts and science – and the tagline of “proof versus empty promises” from our first eQ Journal remains my mantra.

While society as a whole continues to make great strides in thinking more holistically – considering environmental and social impacts of products from material acquisition through disposal – there remain huge gaps in understanding on some basic issues. When it comes to paper, the myths and facts about the use of recycled content are still being debated.

A common myth: Using recycled fiber is always better for the environment.

The facts: It depends on the product and the mill of manufacture.

Paper is simply not one thing – paper products are used in a wide variety of common applications like tissue, packaging and communication papers. And there are a host of specialty applications ranging from building materials (eg. insulation, counter tops, and flooring) to automotive applications (like gaskets and brake liners). Different types of paper products require different types of pulp fibers to produce them – and in some cases, using recycled fiber simply doesn’t make sense – environmentally or economically.

I often ask people to pause and consider the differences between an egg carton and a premium printing grade like Somerset web. Egg cartons are often made of recycled newsprint; mottled grey in appearance because the paper didn’t have to be deinked. For our use, post-consumer waste must be deinked, bleached, and cleaned to remove any type of contaminant. Intuitively, many people can see that given a choice, it makes more sense to use recovered paper in applications that require less treatment and creates less waste.

To help further quantify the overall impacts, we embarked on a cradle-to-gate analysis of greenhouse gas emissions for our mills. This type of analysis is complex and it literally took us years of work to select a modeling tool, learn the tool, and then build a model for our operations.

The results are clear: Adding recycled fiber to products made at our Somerset Mill in Skowhegan, ME actually increased the carbon footprint of those products. Specifically, adding 10% recycled content raises the carbon footprint by 16% over the same product made with virgin fiber.

For a detailed look at our LCA journey, you can download copies of our whitepaper series. We have completed three issues on the Life Cycle Assessment of Paper Products as follows:

Volume 4.1  Part One – The Basics

Volume 4.2  Part Two – The Impact of Methodology on the Life Cycle Analysis of Paper Products

Volume 4.3 Part Three – The Carbon Footprint of Sappi’s Somerset Mill and the Impact of Recycled Fiber

We are strong advocates for recycling outreach and education. All of Sappi’s coated fine papers are recyclable, and we always encourage the use of “please recycle” logos and claims on printed pieces. As individuals, we all have opportunities to recycle more paper. Once paper is recovered, the key is to put that fiber to best use.

 

Laura M. Thompson, Phd, is director of sustainable development and technical marketing at Sappi Fine Paper North America. She has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of New Hampshire and an M.S. and PhD in Paper Science from the Institute of Paper Science and Technology. Since 1995, she has held a variety of positions within the paper industry, including R&D, mill environmental, product development for specialties and coated fine paper, and, most recently, sustainability. Since joining Sappi in 2006, Laura has quickly emerged as an industry leader in the field of sustainable development. This article is republished from The Environmental Quotient with permission from Sappi Fine Paper North America. For more information, please visit Sappi’s eQ Microsite. You can also follow Laura on Twitter.

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