Stacks of white and colored plain paper

Photograph by Anthia Cumming/Shutterstock

Environmental Impact

Old Growth

The papermaking industry once counted on virgin forests and old-growth trees for pulp, which take hundreds of years to grow and are virtually nonrenewable. But as conservation groups have moved to protect ecologically rich forests and limit commercial access to them, the industry has been moving towards renewable forestry plantations for virgin pulp paper.


The papermaking industry has also come under fire for its heavy use of chemicals like chlorine and chlorine compounds. The Environmental Paper Assessment Tool is a new site to help buyers and sellers of paper products to evaluate and select “environmentally preferable” paper, which considers toxicology as well as recyclability and other factors. Paper mills generally rely on a mix of toxic chemicals for reducing wood to pulp and bleaching paper. Mercury, water effluents such as absorbable organic halides and total suspended solids, and solid waste such as boiler ash and effluent sludge are all potential byproducts from this industry.


Many of the big office supply and service stores that are responsible for most of the country’s paper sales have made the environment a bigger priority in their paper procurement. Notably, in 2002, Staples announced that it would reduce sales of paper made of wood from endangered forests by 50 percent. The company now averages 30 percent post–consumer content by weight across all paper products sold. Staples also committed to move the majority of paper products it offers to FSC–certified paper by the end of 2010. In January, Office Depot announced that the company’s top-selling 30 percent recycled content paper would be FSC-certified. “We simplified the decision for them by providing [consumers] both attributes — responsible FSC forestry and recycled content — in one item,” Office Depot's Environmental Strategy Advisor Yalmaz Siddiqui said in a statement.

Energy Costs

Though the paper industry is decreasing its reliance on nonrenewable resources, paper production remains energy intensive. Some paper companies claim that buying 100 percent PCW conserves other resources besides trees, such as water and energy. The PCW manufacturing process uses fewer inputs and produces less wastewater and solid waste than virgin fiber manufacturing. The Bureau of International Recycling reports that recycled pulp requires 64 percent less energy than virgin pulp.

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