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Planet Friendly Paper?

Jan 1, 1970

As mentioned in a previous blog, paper plays an important role in everyone’s lives. Far beyond the hand squashed reeds of the Cyperus Papyrus and the donkey powered factories of the 8th century, paper is now an important resource in all areas of art and industry. In the modern day there are different blends and different methods used in creating a variety of different types of paper. Many of these methods affect the texture or appearance of the paper, bringing a variety of different types of paper. But where does all of this paper come from now and more importantly, what effect is it having on our planet?

    There are a multitude of paper manufacturing companies world-wide that deal with varying different methods of sourcing and creating paper. All methods follow one common procedure however: All raw materials are dissolved in water, creating a pulp, which is then drained through something called a screen, creating a woven effect in the fibres. The fibres are then pressed, removing any water. Within this procedure there are a variety of different methods taken on by separate companies. One of the most crucial decisions is the materials that are pulped in the first place. Aside from wood, which is now the most common source of pulp, many companies choose to use other materials to create a different effect in the end product. For example, more expensive paper may use cotton as a raw material as it is known to be stronger and more durable.

    But where do we get hold of all of this pulp to produce our paper? Well the answer is pretty simple. Those huge rainforests that are rapidly disappearing faster than the strawberry creams in a box of Quality Street, that’s partly due to the manufacturing of paper. As much as 35% of deforestation is simply to collect woodchips to create pulp for paper. Obviously from an environmental standpoint this is a very serious ecological issue. Human beings need plant life to produce oxygen through photosynthesis, that’s something you learn in Primary school, this is why there have been so many protests and embargos set against these logging companies. Of course it is the fault of the consumer as much as it is the fault of the provider. The demand for paper has risen to a gob-smacking 400% in the last 40 years, which is why many environmental organisations are working their hardest to pass laws that restrict the felling of forests in specific areas.

    So why hasn’t humanity disappeared under a cloud of carbon dioxide yet? Well that’s pretty simple really, it’s because people are actually taking note that there is a problem. Not just the individuals, but the companies themselves are taking stands to find cleaner, alternative methods to source and produce paper. Let’s look at one of the biggest environmental issues facing paper: the aforementioned deforestation. As mentioned before our trees are being felled at a faster rate than attractive women can chain themselves to, which is not just a huge environmental problem, but also a pretty big problem for the paper industries in general. Something has to be done to make sure that we have a sustainable amount of trees to keep the industries going and better yet, keep us all breathing oxygen!

    Popular companies such as Clairefontain have a very active role in keeping the woodlands maintained and growing whilst also using them as a source of wood pulp. Clairfontain in particular has taken an active interest in the preservation of French woodland and has a couple of hundred hectares of forest. For those that don’t know, 1 hectare is 10,000 square metres, so is a pretty hefty amount of forest to maintain. Operating within this, they research the most effective methods of managing the growth of trees to meet up with the demands of the industry. They also do a great deal of research regarding the origins of the wood that they are using. You won’t find loggers pulling up into your garden and hacking down that pear tree you’ve been trying to grow for the last few years, instead a great deal of research goes into finding the most suitable and most environmentally friendly place to acquire wood. Many of the restrictions are placed by certification systems such as the Pan European Forest Certification.

    Yes I know, certifications are those boring legal things that you pretend to skim read because you have much more exciting things to do than read legal documents, but they are important. Without these certifications there would be no order or restrictions, without these restrictions there would be no control. Now the Pan European Forest Certification (or PEFC) is one of the most important certifications in Europe, certifying over 243 million hectares of forest within Europe. That’s almost Ten times the size of the U.K alone. Now let’s shake aside these huge numbers and really look at what this certification demands. The key to the PEFC is not just sustainability, but also growth. Not only is the ecosystem to be undisturbed, it is also important for the companies to also actively support them.

    Of course a logging company could manage without meeting the criteria of a PEFC, but they would have a distinct disadvantage in the market. With the increase in activism and the real demand for cleaner environmental living there is a great deal of pressure placed on companies to source their materials from certified forests. As a consumer it is always important to look into where a company sources their materials to make sure that they are supporting companies that are actively supporting the planet.  

    Sadly, as much as paper has a great deal of uses; it also has a great deal of environmental issues, meaning that the consequences of producing paper go beyond deforestation. Not only is the sourcing of the raw materials damaging, but the actual manufacturing of paper, much like any other industry, has some pretty nasty side effects. The biggest umbrella of macabre being: pollution.

    As you can imagine there is a great deal of pollution that occurs through the pulping process alone, not including transport, the machinery and the waste that comes from it. As mentioned before, one of the most crucial roles in the pulping process is the suspension of the source materials in water. Obviously simply leaving some wood in water would do nothing; it just floats there like a depressed donkey going under a bridge, so the process needs to be accelerated. But how can you make wood break down at an accelerated rate, how can we speed up this tedious process? Well that’s simple; we just have to pour a load of chemicals over them! But of course, not every chemical is good for this, you need a really powerful chemical that will destroy everything it touches whilst maintaining the integrity of its pulpy goodness. That’s why a lot of companies use Sulphur based chemical compounds.

    Now for those of you that didn’t do chemistry at A level, Sulphur on its own is not a particularly harmful element, however when combined with hydrogen and oxygen it becomes Sulphuric Acid. Sulphuric acid is a highly corrosive acid that can burn through metal. Of course, this isn’t how it is used in the production of paper, instead other Sulphur based compounds that are weaker and almost more stable are used and also recycled, which is good. Of course during the process a great deal of sulphuric gases are pumped into the atmosphere, which is very bad indeed. These gases get very friendly with our clouds, so much so that they decide to move in together. This new found friendship descends on the earth in the form of acid rain.

    But it’s not just the pulping that needs an insane amount of chemicals. You see the thing about paper is that after it has been pulped and flattened out, it isn’t that lovely white colour that we are used to. For that effect companies would rely on Chlorine: the eye burning monster of the water, and its compounds to create a bleaching effect on the paper to make it appear clearer and whiter. Obviously when dealing with corrosive materials such as chlorine there are obviously a great deal of environmental issues. Chlorine can be quite dangerous as it is corrosive in both liquid and gas forms, the latter being extremely so as it can cause severe damage to your respiratory system. To make matters worse, the use of Chlorine with chemically pulped paper can cause a great deal of nasty chemical by-products that can be horrifically poisonous and corrosive.

    So what levels have the companies been going to in order to counteract these environmentally harmful ways? Well one of the biggest steps is the use of Chlorine free bleaches, usually made from more stable compounds such as Hydrogen Peroxide. This means that there are far less chemical reactions being created in our atmosphere and the disposal is much simpler. More restrictions have been placed on the removal of chemical wastage, meaning that they are to be disposed of responsibly. Many pulp mills have also used machines that manually grind down the wood into pulp, helping to cut down severely on the use of chemicals. This method also allows for the weaker chemicals, such as Hydrogen Peroxide to bleachthe paper much more efficiently.

    So the industries are making a real effort to make sure they aren’t killing the planet as much, but these are just baby steps compared to the biggest issue that comes to the planet. This issue is not just the fault of the manufacturers, but also to us, the consumers. I’m of course talking about recycling. Now we all have a vague idea about what recycling is, it’s that thing that means we have to have three different coloured bins, that they sometimes take away and replace with another coloured bin and for some reason my neighbour has one with wheels when mine is just a box, I mean what’s so special about him that he gets a better bin- but I digress. The question is not, do we need to recycle, because if you’ve read through all of this and are still asking that question then you’ve obviously missed something severely, the question is, what are the manufacturers doing to all that paper we’re giving them? Well to be honest, it is not too dissimilar to what they are doing with the wood chips in the first place. The fibres in paper are strong enough to be recycled and re-pulped around seven times before they become useless. The most important step is to remove any impurities in the fibres, which after use would be quite extensive.

    The process of removing the inks is referred to simply as: deinking. The act of deinking uses a combination of machinery and chemicals to extract the impurities from the paper fibres. The impurities are then filtered out of the fibres which are then re-used in the pulping process. Deinking itself has its share of environmental issues as it leaves a very nasty, sludgy by-product that needs to be disposed of. Regardless, this method is very useful in producing fresh, reusable fibres.

    So overall, what is there to be done about the environmental issues of paper on this planet? We can’t simply stop using paper, it’s a commodity that we are all extremely reliant on, but there are cleaner methods of producing it. Not only should we put some real effort into recycling, even if it does take us a little extra time to sort out, but we should also look into the sourcing of our materials. Many of the companies we purchase from will be open about where their materials are from and in what way their products are manufactured. Companies that are less open about this, may have very little to boast about. The economy runs on supply and demand, if you don’t buy, the companies will not run. Make the effort to know you’re supporting the right companies to encourage others to make the more responsible decisions.  

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