Truth About Printing
The Truth about Printing and the Environment
Most companies that say they want to go green do one thing and then crow about it, slapping various green logos on everything. That’s not really being green, that’s a marketing green, a green-wash. Our philosophy on being green is very simple: whatever we do, it isn’t enough, we are always looking for ways to improve. At Earth Enterprise we take that “never enough” attitude and apply it to every business decision we make, asking every day “What can we do to be a greener company?” In every aspect of our company, whether it’s our press room, our prep department, our water fountains, or our lights, we think about the environment and the impact we have on the environment. It’s a more holistic approach to the environment.
There are many fallacies about the environment, often based on what we think a certain logo means—FSC®, GPI, SFI, Soy ink—they all sound good, but do they really have anything to do with the environment? FSC, the Forest Stewardship Council™, guarantees that a particular wood that is used comes from a forest that is sustainable. Though on the surface we completely support it, and are in fact an FSC-approved printer, there are many problems with that organization.
Sustainable Is Good, But Is It Also Local?
An FSC piece of paper can come from anywhere in the world. It can come from China, it can come from Brazil, and one of the important things about paper in my opinion is, like your vegetables, you want your paper grown locally. You want to support your local sustainable forest.
One of the many problems with FSC is that they allow for mono-cultural forests, tree farms. In the Northeast, from approximately Ohio to Virginia to Maine, we have excellent multicultural, bio-diverse forests. We at Earth Enterprise primarily buy our paper from northeast forests, sustainable forests that have an abundance of wildlife. We don’t support tree farms. The paper industry likes to point out that four million trees a day are planted in this country—an unbelievable statistic that sounds great. The problem is they’re doing this in these mono-cultural forests. A mono-cultural forest is a tree farm where they only plant one type of crop. Mono-cultural forests only support about 10% of the wildlife of the traditional forests; they use pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, while the natural cycle of life in a diverse forest leads to an organic self-fertilization. When asked why they support mono-cultural forest, an FSC representative said, “you know we have to give in to the landowners and this is what the landowners want.” But shouldn’t a watchdog agency hold the industry it monitors to a higher standard?
Is the goal to have landowners strive to meet the standards? Or is the goal to create a set of standards that includes everyone? Here is an example of flexible standards: The FSC says they get their pulp from one of three sources—controlled sources, managed sources, and recycled fiber. “Managed” according to the FSC representative, “means they meet all the FSC requirements; controlled means that they’re working on it.”
Is this a case of assigning new meanings to words to suit the purpose? Perhaps “aiming toward controlled” would be more honest. The idea of FSC should be that it requires a chain of custody so you know that your pulp comes from a particular sustainable forest. FSC admitted that there is no way for anyone to trace the forest source of recycled pulp, but, the representative said, “recycled pulp is good for the environment so we want to guarantee it.” Clearly, that is leaving their mandate as a forest company; if they want to talk about whether recycled pulp is good for the environment, that’s a completely different topic.
Buying local is important to us—we buy local vegetables and we buy local paper. I spent two days driving around in the forest with a forester and his dog in a pickup truck, enjoying the atmosphere of trees and wildlife, learning some things about the trees that would become our paper. This forester had both FSC forest and non-FSC forest under his dominion. At the end of the two days I spent with him, I asked, “What’s the difference between what you do in an FSC forest and in a non-FSC forest?” He answered “The difference? Paperwork.” That’s an honest answer, but a horrible one. What we would want to hear is “Oh, FSC makes us do this and makes us do that.” The reason more American foresters don’t become FSC-foresters is it won’t help the forest, they don’t do anything different, all they have to do is pay their $5,000 and fill out paperwork.
People have on their e-mails “Don’t print this e-mail, save a tree” but even though it seems counter intuitive, paper is actually good for forests. In fact, there are 12 million more acres of forests in the US than in 19871, and it goes without saying that since 1987 countless emails have been printed. The truth is that 90% of the forests in America are privately owned2 and these private landowners can do one of three things with their forest land—just three—they can develop it, they can turn it to some kind of agriculture use, or leave it as a forest. Obviously we want them to leave it as a forest. The only way we can get these private landowners to leave their land forested is if we pay them for their trees. Landowners grow that for which there is a demand—soy, corn, tobacco. A demand for trees is how we support millions of acres of forest.
We’re not advocating that we should grow a forest and clear-cut it; what we are advocating is creating sustainable forests, which we have done here in America. The overall amount of forested land in America is exactly the same as it was in the 1900s, with some shifts in location. In the Northeast it has grown. New York State had 2.8 million acres of forest in the 1900s, 6 million acres in 20003. The state of Vermont went from 3.7 million acres of forest in 1948 to 4.6 million acres of forest in 1997, fifty years later4. But in the country as a whole the number of forested acres is the same size as in the 1900s5 were. What other natural resource do we have where that is true?
The concept of sustainability is simple: Can it remain the same, without being depleted? To achieve that with forestland you never remove more in a year than can be replaced in a year; this is called pruning the forest. A forest grows approximately 15 to 25% every 20 years, depending on the type of trees. That means that if you clear approximately 15 to 25 % every 20 years, you’re essentially keeping the forest the same size. Mother Nature does this through forest fires and through decomposition. All we’re doing is pruning the forest to keep it exactly the same size, which also keeps it healthy. So we have to convince these private landowners—and we do, by paying them for their trees to use as wood and paper products—to keep the forests going. That’s sustainability.
Let’s get back to logos and green-wash. Is a ream of paper with the FSC or SFI Logo or other logo’s greener than one without a logo? Some American paper carries one of the green logos and some does not. But American paper manufacturers no longer use elemental chlorine to bleach paper, while different environmental standards apply in China and Brazil. Again, some of that paper carries a green logo and some does not. The logo does not make the paper any greener; the absence of the logo does not make the paper any less green.
Soy ink is another big green-wash. I recently wrote a letter to the Audubon Society. The Audubon Society sends out a newsletter emblazoned with the soy ink logo, so of course you think it must be green. But it’s not green. Thirty years ago ink was made of petroleum and linseed oil. Twenty years ago someone figured out that soy oil was cheaper and would dry faster so they took out the linseed oil and replaced it with soy and they called it soy-based ink. “Soy-based” sounds really green—you can eat soy. But the phrase “soy-based” doesn’t answer any of our environmental questions about ink: “Does it have VOCs? Does it have solvents? Does it have heavy metals? Does it have petroleum? Is it biodegrade-able?” The truth is a soy-based ink might have any or all of those ingredients and might not be biodegradable. The phrase “soy-based” only guarantees one thing—there is soy in it, which is not necessarily so good for the environment. Soy is the number two cause of deforestation in Brazil6. Click To Read Further
It uses four times as much water as a traditional forest and only absorbs 25% of the carbon dioxide of the traditional forest7. Historically, dependence on any particular crop has often proved to be a mistake and we are currently way too dependent on soy and corn.
Another thing companies talk about to show how green they are is renewable energy. At Earth Enterprise we use renewable energy. But it’s important to look at it for what it really is, a balancing act of credits. No one has windmills on the top of their plant and solar doesn’t create enough power for a plant. When companies say they buy renewable energy, they often leave off the word “credits.” Let’s say General Electric builds a wind power plant; unfortunately, wind, solar, hydro are not as efficient as traditional coal-fired plants. General Electric could make more money dollar for dollar if they built a coal-fired plant, but we don’t want coal-fired plants. So we allow them to say, “this plant is making 1 million gigahertz of power.” They can sell to our Con Ed and our Con Ed can sell to us this 1 million gigahertz of power, for which we pay more. It’s good because we want them to build more green energy power plants, but all we are truly doing is giving a subsidy to companies like General Electric and other large corporations for building renewable energy plants, which we support completely. But there is no direct line, it’s not even direct electricity, it’s a credit-based system. This system is contributing this much power, we can sell this much credit. It’s not like there is a direct line between the wind-power plant and the printing plant. If the printing power plant decides to turn off its lights they’re not going to make more or less electricity. Once again, it’s green-wash; renewable energy is just a credit-based system that helps corporations, doesn’t make the printer greener.
The biggest green-wash statement by far concerns paper and recycling. The question of whether recycled paper or virgin paper is greener is actually a ridiculous question. Because once the pulp hits the mill it’s made in the same exact way. So the question of recycled paper versus virgin paper is irrelevant. The only question that can be asked is which is greener, recycled pulp or virgin pulp? That’s the question. One would think that recycled pulp has to be greener, but it’s not necessarily true. We believe in recycling paper, but we believe in using it in “best practices.” The best way to use recycled paper is to down-cycle. You take virgin white paper, you print on it, and then it goes through the recycling process and instead of making it white paper again, you down-cycle it to newspaper, chipboard, colored uncoated paper, and Kraft paper. If you down-cycle it you will get between 9 and 10 uses out of those pieces of fiber. If you up-cycle it, try to make it white, you’ll only get about 4 to 5 uses out of it; the processing necessary to make it white again shortens the fibers. There is also a tremendous amount of energy and detergent used to DE-ink this paper, which isn’t necessary if you are going to down-cycle. The marketing demand to put the “recycled” stamp on a ream of white paper has created a paradoxical problem: the price of recycled pulp has gone up, so places where it is most efficient to use recycled pulp, like newspaper plants, are buying virgin paper because they can’t afford the recycled pulp anymore. How is that green?
But let’s make this simple… it’s about money. 70% of American forests are privately owned. There are 3 things they can do with land: develop it by converting it to agriculture or grazing land or leave it as forest. The best way to convince these private landowners to keep their land as forest is to pay them to sustainably prune their forest.
In this country we recycle almost 60% of our paper products, which is a tremendous number. We’re hoping to get that number up even higher, we have a need for that recycled pulp, but there’s another paradoxical problem involved in recycling. We import a tremendous amount of stuff from China. What do we send back to China? Recycled paper. Because China doesn’t have any more trees, because they don’t have a forest practice like we do, they buy our recycled paper. About 50% of all recycled fiber goes to China.
The three closest recycling sorting facilities to New York City are in Pittsburgh, Buffalo and a new one in Newark. After sorting, the material is brought back to New York by train, where 50% of it gets put on a container ship to go to China to make into paper that is “recycled.” How is all that transport better for the environment than organic sustainable forests in the Adirondacks where the trees are 50 miles from the paper mill and the paper travels 150-200 miles to our printing plant? How can the stuff that went to China be greener? How is that better than using that same recycled material to make affordable newsprint instead? The green-wash that recycled white paper is best has created a whole new set of environmental problems.
Do logos make a product or a company green? No. But consumers doing their homework and really thinking about what is best for the environment and then acting on that knowledge can. Don’t be green-washed—find out for yourself.
Remember the number one rule: but local
- International Paper, Down to Earth Series, Issue ”How does using paper lead to more trees”
- International Paper, Down to Earth Series, Issue ”How do you fit in the recyclability equation”
- Vermont Department of Forest, Parks, and Recreation “Forests in the Green Mountain State: A Half-Century of Change.”