And tell the real story of print and paper

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In attacking the printing and paper industries with a new file format (.wwf) that cannot easily be printed, the WWF have dropped a PR clanger the order of which can hardly be imagined. For either the WWF have conducted NO serious research before embarking upon such an endeavour – perhaps relying on media and tree hugging ‘sound bites’ as source material – and in doing so have made a genuinely cringe-worthy mistake, or they have absolutely no regard for the planet they claim they are trying to protect.

Of course, they have a merry band of eco-warrior cohorts who will lap up every word of it, but this doesn’t change the fundamental fact that, on this particular occasion, the WWF have got it WRONG .

Everyone abhors the unnecessary felling of natural forests – even those many thousands of us involved in the unconscionable act of ‘printing’ onto that most evil of materials ‘paper’. Moreover, surely every man, woman and child would offer their unequivocal support and enthusiasm for this WWF initiative if it saved even ONE naturally growing tree from being felled. But it will not. It cannot.

The use of natural woodland and rainforests for human purposes is unwanted. It deprives the world of natural habitats, a vast carbon sink, and changes the landscape and climate as a result. But these forests are not the source of paper. This is worth repeating in case the natural propensity for ignoring truths has washed over any of the readers of this statement:


For one thing, most natural forests comprise mainly of hardwood species. Paper cannot be made with hardwoods (furniture can) because the fibres are too short to allow the molecular cohesion to form a stable paper product. Instead, softwoods, rapidly growing species, such as Spruce and Pine, are grown in managed plantations EXACTLY like a crop – for these trees ARE crops – planted to be grown and harvested when they are mature enough to provide a decent yield.

What is more, the act of growing and felling trees in managed farms actually sequesters MORE CO2 from the atmosphere then if they are left to reach maturity. Therefore, if the WWF can study the following reasoning of why this is so, and at the end of it if they agree with its logic, it will surely have no option but to withdraw its unnecessary and, potentially damaging, file format. And apologise accordingly.

The paper cycle as a carbon sequestration engine

Paper is made from trees. But these trees are rather special. They are fast growing species, planted specifically for this purpose. They are a CROP. These fast growing trees grow by fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It is not ‘breathing’ as some would mistakenly describe it – it is more like eating. Trees grow out of the air – NOT out of the ground.

Paper contains biogenic carbon; this is carbon once contained in the atmosphere as CO2. The tree has eaten the carbon and ‘spat out’ the oxygen (but only until it is fully grown, when it starts to lose its appetite!) The process of making paper consumes energy and fossil fuels are required to be burned for this. But the paper itself contains carbon and so, for now, the emissions from the fossil fuels to make the paper are ‘offset’ by the carbon locked in the chemistry of the paper (that once resided in the atmosphere).

Different papers contain differing amounts of carbon and require the expenditure of differing amounts of energy for their manufacture and this energy involves the emission of differing amounts of non-biogenic (fossil fuel) carbon dioxide, depending upon the sources of power for the paper mill in question and whatever national grid it may draw some or all of its power from.

In general, the manufacture of paper from recycled fibre requires marginally less energy than its manufacture from virgin. However, this is not always the case and it is also not always the case that it involves the emission of less carbon dioxide from non-biogenic sources. Most papers made from new (virgin) fibre contain the equivalent of more carbon dioxide (in the form of biogenic carbon) than was emitted in their manufacture. They are therefore net absorbers of CO2.

Each time recycled fibre passes through a further paper making cycle no new carbon is fixed from the atmosphere but energy is consumed and, in most cases, carbon dioxide emitted. So, each time paper is made from virgin fibre a certain amount of carbon dioxide is locked up, and will remain locked up until the paper breaks down. Each time paper is made from recycled fibre it will consume energy and, in most cases, be a net emitter of non-biogenic carbon dioxide. Under no circumstances can it be a net absorber.

If paper is not recycled then, after use, it may be sent to some form of landfill facility or incinerated. In the latter case, useful energy can be extracted, allowing the burning of fossil fuels that would release non-biogenic carbon dioxide to be reduced. Conventionally, BUT INCORRECTLY , it is assumed that if sent to landfill all paper breaks down very quickly and that the carbon content of the paper is therefore irrelevant, since it will all be returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane within a relatively short time frame. Methane, one of the possible decay products of paper, is also routinely captured and burned at modern landfill sites to extract useful energy, allowing the burning of other ‘fossil’ fuels to be reduced.

Since it is assumed INCORRECTLY that all paper sent to landfill decays, releasing all the fixed carbon dioxide – either directly or via methane – most comparisons of the environmental advantages/disadvantages of virgin versus recycled fibre paper focus on the relative amounts of energy consumed to manufacture the paper and, ultimately, the carbon dioxide from non-biogenic carbon emitted in the course of this process.

Since, in most cases, more carbon dioxide is emitted in the manufacture of paper from virgin than from recycled fibre, recycled paper is usually considered INCORRECTLY to be more environmentally friendly, even taking into account the possibility of deriving useful energy and reducing the burning of fossil fuels if the paper is incinerated rather than recycled. In addition, by reducing the demand for trees to be felled to make paper, recycling is viewed as beneficial in reducing the pressure to log old growth forest or in allowing areas currently given over to managed plantations to return to mature forests, which are better in terms of biodiversity and that can act as carbon sinks.

There is now new evidence that when sent to landfill paper breaks down MUCH more slowly and less completely than is assumed by most current life cycle analyses comparing the environmental benefits of virgin and recycled fibre. Moreover, there is the strong possibility that paper sent to landfill and not incinerated or recycled represents a significant and growing carbon sink . This possibility has not been examined in any of the current life cycle analyses. This can be considered an oversight of titanic, climate changing , proportions.


If, instead of all the biogenic carbon in paper being released when it is sent to landfill as is currently INCORRECTLY assumed, less is actually released than the net carbon dioxide content of the paper (the amount of carbon dioxide fixed to produce the paper, less the amount emitted in its manufacture, printing and delivery), then every batch of paper sent to landfill is locking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So, although recycling reduces the amount of paper sent to landfill, it also contributes to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels !

Furthermore, in so far as the above is true, the decisive question that must be answered in order to determine whether virgin or recycled fibre is more environmentally friendly is not the amount of energy consumed (carbon dioxide emitted) in the manufacture and printing of the paper but whether more carbon can be sequestered upstream in unfelled mature forest or downstream in landfill - which, in FOPAP's view, is unchallengeable.

Since the production of paper from recycled paper is, after the first round, inevitably a net emitter of carbon dioxide and the production of paper from virgin fibre is, in most cases, a net absorber of carbon dioxide, it is only the use of virgin fibre that offers the real possibility of a communication medium that is a net absorber of carbon dioxide - the humble art of printing on paper.

Neither recycled paper NOR online communications can EVER offer this possibility.

(C) 2011