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How much have environmental papers changed since Conservatree's previous Environmentally Sound Paper Listing in 1997?

  • The biggest change has been in mill ownership.
  • Yet the number of environmental printing and writing papers has remained steady, right around 500.
  • Postconsumer content in uncoated papers has generally increased from 20% to 30%.
  • Yet a large percentage of papers seem to have taken on EPA's minimum content standards, which were supposed to be a floor, as their ceiling.
  • Some mills no longer make postconsumer content papers except on demand, while tree free paper manufacturers are often adding it in to some of their formerly 100% tree free papers.
  • Some domestic papers that were formerly TCF have now switched to less-stringent ECF bleaching. But some recycling mills are producing PCF papers in chlorine free systems.
  • Some exciting tree free papers have been introduced since 1997, although the lack of production infrastructure for tree free pulps limits its expansion.
  • New "private label" papers are exploding into office products stores, with a proliferation of specific uses, but very few of them have environmental content.

Who's In Charge?

The biggest change has been in mill ownership. Just like other industries, the paper industry has been frenetically merging and buying each other up. In 2000 alone, Champion has been folded into International Paper (which had previously bought Union Camp), Georgia Pacific announced plans to acquire Fort James, Stora Enso bought Consolidated Papers (which had previously bought Repap), and Crown Vantage's future is uncertain. In the past, it was more often smaller manufacturers or marginal mills that changed hands. But Champion, Union Camp, and Fort James have long been giants in the industry.

With so many recent changes, it's not clear yet what will happen with many of their papers. There is some concern that mills may be buying each other simply to eliminate competition, and it is true that some mills have been shut down and papers discontinued by their new owners. Some long-gone manufacturers still have a ghostly, or (for the more secular) historic, presence in the names of their papers taken over by the companies that bought them. Fox River still makes "Howard Linen," after taking over Howard Paper Company. Georgia Pacific continues to use the Nekoosa name on papers developed by the Nekoosa mill before it became GP property. Hennepin and Hopper are gone.

Some mills maintain a distinct identity within the auspices of their new owners. This is particularly true of companies like Hammermill, Beckett and Strathmore, which are now owned by International Paper.

Fortunately, even with this consolidation, the number of environmental papers has held steady, right around 500. Some popular papers from the past, such as Hammermill's Unity DP, have disappeared. But new papers, such as Domtar's Weeds, have been introduced. Most significantly, every grade of printing and writing paper offers several, and often many, environmental choices.

Recycled Content

Change has been most apparent in recycled content and chlorine free papers, with some positive differences and some disappointing. On one hand, postconsumer content in uncoated papers, most notably copy paper, has increased from 1997's 20% to the 30% level now required as a minimum by the EPA Environmental Purchasing Guidelines. While the Guidelines only govern federal agency purchases, mills have standardized their recycled papers to meet at least EPA's minimum, in order to maximize their market.

On the other hand, the Guidelines were intended to specify only minimums, while encouraging purchasers to buy the highest recycled content possible. Unfortunately, these "floors" have instead often been taken as ceilings by many mills, or as "good enough." Preconsumer content, especially, is disappearing from mills' identification of environmental fibers in their papers. Mill representatives say they still often use preconsumer recovered fiber in their papers, but do not want to be held to specific percentages.

Certainly, buyers and environmental groups influenced this change by their adamant emphasis on postconsumer content. Indeed, postconsumer has required emphasis because collection and processing systems still need more development and integration into the papermaking system, while preconsumer fibers have always been part of many mills' feedstock. Still, some of the preconsumer fiber use has probably reverted to virgin fiber, which is a step backwards.

We also had a couple of mills tell us that they no longer make recycled papers they had offered in the past, and do not want people to know they still have the capacity to make recycled paper. More common were mills that reported their papers' postconsumer content as "0-20" or "0-50," with the note that they could add different levels of postconsumer content if customers asked for it. We note these papers in the lists.

On the other hand, tree free paper manufacturers are more likely to include postconsumer content as part of the fiber mix in their papers. This trend seems to have several incentives: environmentally aware customers are asking for more than one environmental attribute in their papers, tree free papers that also meet EPA minimum recycled content requirements can be bought by federal agencies, and - ironically - adding postconsumer content brings down the price of many tree free papers, which tend to be among the highest-priced.

Chlorine Free Papers

Another significant change has been in chlorine free papers. In 1997, Louisiana Pacific was still producing Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) pulp in its Northern California mill. Shockingly, it found almost no market for the pulp in North America, shipping most of it to European mills instead. But a few North American papers included it to create Processed Chlorine Free (PCF) recycled papers. No more. LP's mill closed and was sold to new owners who are still debating its future output. The few domestic papers that are now PCF are either made in recycling mills that are using non-chlorine bleaching processes, or are made with TCF pulp imported from Sweden. Mills such as Fraser Papers, one of the pioneers in chlorine free North American papers, and Neenah, which each previously had one TCF paper in their environmental text and cover line-up, have now switched that paper's bleaching to Elementally Chlorine Free (ECF).

Some mills listed their papers as "environmental" solely on the basis of their ECF bleaching. If that was the only potential environmental criterion (i.e. there was no recycled or tree free content), we did not include those papers in this listing. We do recognize, however, that there are several different levels of ECF systems. Those that simply replace chlorine with chlorine dioxide or other derivatives do significantly reduce the level of dioxins and pollutants released by their plants. But these substitutions cannot eliminate the problem, as TCF and PCF processing do. Yet, some mills have far more extensive ECF systems than simple substitution, adding extended delignification and non-chlorine boosters. We intend at a future date to explore the differences in ECF systems and decide whether any merit adding to our Environmentally Sound Paper List.

While the North American paper industry still adamantly opposes TCF bleaching, there is some hope for the future. Leaders in European TCF papermaking such as Stora Enso and UPM-Kymmene have bought U.S. paper mills. We can only hope they will extend that leadership into environmentally sound decisions when bleaching systems at the U.S. mills are updated.

Tree Free Papers

Several exciting tree free papers have been introduced since 1997, including expanded lines from Vision Paper and Crane & Co.

With very little production infrastructure for tree free papers, and resulting higher prices, most are grouped in Text, Cover and Writing grades, where they are more likely to be cost-competitive with other higher quality alternatives. But there are also a few office and offset papers.

Retail Sales

One of the hottest trends in the paper industry right now is development of office papers targeted to specific uses and most visibly sold in office products stores such as Office Depot, Office Max and Staples. These papers are very attractive to paper companies because they have higher profit margins than most paper sales. So, whereas in the past customers simply bought copy paper, now suddenly we see copy paper, multipurpose paper, laser paper, ink jet paper, coated laser paper and several other permutations. Particularly disturbing is the trend towards higher basis weights in copier papers, from the formerly standard 20# to the now increasingly common 24#. Higher basis weights require more fiber in the paper and, especially since very few of these new papers have recycled content, that means more trees.

This part of the market is also a haven for "private label papers." Companies such as Hewlett Packard, Xerox and IBM contract with paper mills to make papers that are then marketed under their company names. Customers frequently think that they must, for example, use a paper with the Hewlett Packard brand name if they have a Hewlett Packard printer, not realizing that HP does not make paper. In fact, the paper mill that made HP's paper probably has their own brand on the shelf right next to it, without customers realizing that it actually is identical paper.

One advantage to private label papers is that the brand name holder may specify particular technical and performance characteristics. But very few of the new papers appearing in office products stores have postconsumer content, despite the fact that Hewlett Packard and Xerox, in particular, have provided strong environmental leadership on several fronts. Conservatree will be researching these private label brands in the near future and adding any that have environmental content to our Environmentally Sound Paper List.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Despite some disconcerting changes in the industry and a severe drop-off in customer demand, environmental papers have been holding their own for the past few years. While most mills have dropped back to minimum levels and some have dropped out entirely, the capacity is still there. A new build-up in demand can solidify the current papers and create incentives for both new papers and renewed competition to increase recycled content.

- Summer 2000

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