Responsible Purchasing Network

Copy Paper: Social & Environmental

Americans consume over 30 million tons of paper per year, most of which is quickly discarded (PIAC, 2007; Hawken, 1999). The average office worker uses 10,000 sheets per year, or a little over half her height in paper. See Figure 1. In 2004, federal offices used an estimated 109,000 tons of copier paper. By 2008, this amount was projected to increase more than ten percent (FNS, n.d.).

Figure 1: Yearly paper use by average office worker - 10,000 sheetsInstitutional purchasers have the power to mitigate the negative social and environmental impacts of the paper and pulp industry by shifting the market toward papers made from post-consumer waste (PCW), without chlorine compounds, and with fiber from responsibly managed forests.

Key impacts during the copy paper lifecycle include: hazardous substance releases during the pulping process, water use and contamination, energy demands and greenhouse gas emissions, pungent and toxic air pollutants, damage to arboreal and aquatic habitats, and high volumes of solid waste. Several of these impacts also contribute directly to global climate change.

Hazardous Substances

Paper mills use caustic soda or lye to break down wood pulp for paper-making. Worldwide, the pulp and paper industry is the single largest consumer of caustic soda. Caustic soda plants using older technologies emit dozens of tons of mercury every year in the U.S. Though environmentally superior production technologies are now common in the United States, some plants still use outmoded processes that emit high levels of mercury. Specifying that vendors offer paper for which the caustic soda used or sourced is manufactured at mercury-free locations alleviates many concerns about mercury pollution (NRDC, 2006).

The paper and pulp industry also contributes substantially to mercury emissions through its heavy use of energy. Electric power generation from coal-fired power plants is the single largest source of mercury emissions in the United States.

Mercury, a heavy metal, transforms into methylmercury in soils and water. Methylmercury biaccumulates in food chains, and if ingested by humans can damage the nervous system. The human nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Methylmercury is particularly harmful in that it more readily enters the brain in this form. Exposure to high levels of mercury can permanently damage the brain and kidneys. The EPA has determined that methylmercury is a possible human carcinogen.Nursing or expectant mothers who ingest contaminated food can expose their babies to mercury, which can adversely affect their development and lead to learning disabilities (ATSDR, 1999).

After the pulp is made, it is then bleached to make copy paper. Approximately 60% of bleached pulp produced in the United States, nearly 22 million tons, is used for printing and writing papers. Conventional bleaching uses chlorine compounds that contribute to hazardous concentrations of dioxin, furans and other chlorinated organic compounds, often referred to collectively as dioxins, in pulp plant effluent. Fortunately, elemental chlorine (Cl2) is now used by only a small fraction (4% of bleached pulp production) of the industry. The so-called elemental chlorine-free (ECF) process uses chlorine dioxide (ClO2). Though a significant improvement to using elemental chlorine, the ECF process still produces some persistent chlorinated substances, such as dioxins. When released in the air, these toxins eventually enter waterways where they bioaccumulate in fish and wind up in human food systems (EPA, 2002).

A 2004 draft EPA report concludes that “dioxins have the potential to produce a broad spectrum of adverse effects in humans by altering cell growth and development, causing cancer, and suppressing the immune system” (EPA, 2008c). Short term effects of dioxin include skin and respiratory tract irritation and cardiovascular and nervous system damage. In addition to being a known carcinogen, it may cause dermatitis, adverse effects on bone marrow, and endocrine system disruption over long-term or repeated exposure (CDC, 2003).

Purchasing chlorine-free bleached or unbleached papers reduces the potential impact of hazardous substances in the lifecycle of copy paper.


The quality of water discharged and quantity of water used in paper and pulp manufacturing are serious environmental concerns. In addition to endocrine disrupting pollutants, wastewater from pulp and paper processes contains suspended solids and sulfur compounds (EPA, 2002). Bacteria and other microorganisms feeding on the solids raise the biological oxygen demand (BOD) in the water, making less oxygen available for other organisms. When this contaminated, oxygen-depleted water is released into lakes and rivers, it disrupts the balance of aquatic ecosystems (Sheperd, 2008). BOD and suspended solids are concerns in both virgin paper and recycled paper manufacturing processes, but technology exists to reduce these pollutants from the effluent stream (FOE, 1997).

The paper industry is the largest consumer of process water of all U.S. industrial sectors (EPA, 2002).Though industrial process water can be treated and reused responsibly, manufacturing one ton of virgin copy paper (a tiny fraction of the overall national annual consumption) produces nearly 20,000 gallons of wastewater. One hundred percent PCW copy paper production results in half as much wastewater. (Environmental impact estimates were made using the Environmental Defense Fund Paper Calculator.)

In Canton, North Carolina one paper plant has been polluting the local waterways for over 100 years, leaving them virtually lifeless, brown and foamy (AP, 2008). The Blue Ridge Paper Company paid $22 million to clean up their toxic discharges and $2 million in damages to downstream landowners, yet since 2005, the plant is still unable to meet federal and North Carolina standards and operates under a variance from the Clean Water Act (AP, 2007; Morrison, 2008). It was not until 2007, when dioxin levels fell below state advisory limits, that regulators lifted a warning on Pigeon River fish consumption. Local scientists, however, recommend that food from the river be eaten in moderation because of the high toxicity of dioxin (AP, 2007). Though researchers have reintroduced a number of wildlife species and attempted to clean up the river, it remains impaired (SMN, 2007).

Read how a group of Great Lakes institutions are improving conditions in their watershed through greener paper purchasing.

Air Pollutants

Paper and pulp industry air emissions have local and global implications. Local air pollution is evident in the “rotten egg” odor around paper and pulp mills caused by hydrogen sulfide and other reduced sulfur gasses released in the pulping process. The industry also emits particulates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Particulates and ground level ozone, created when VOCs and NOx emissions react with sunlight, aggravate respiratory conditions and damage lung tissue (EPA, 2002). Ground level ozone damages vegetation and reduces crop yields.

Nitrogen oxides also react with other compounds in the atmosphere to create acid precipitation, which can travel hundreds of miles before falling. Acid rain, snow and fog deteriorate built structures and pollute aquatic habitats (EPA, 2008d). The paper and pulp industry contributes directly to global warming through combustion processes and energy use that result in greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide (CO2) (EPA, 2002).


According to the EPA, the pulp, paper and allied products industry is the third largest consumer of energy after the chemicals and minerals sectors (EPA, 2002). The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the pulp and paper industry accounts for 2.3 quadrillion Btu in 2002 or ten percent of all energy used by manufacturing industries in the United States (EIA, 2002).

Carbon dioxide emissions from paper and pulp manufacturing impact the global climate. As a result of its energy consumption, the American paper and pulp industry is responsible for 102.3 million metric tons of CO2 per year – an amount equivalent to the carbon held in nearly 650,000 acres of forest preserved from deforestation (EIA, 2007; EPA, 2008a).

Global climate change means a warmer atmosphere, extreme summertime heat, rising sea levels, more intense hurricanes, shifting rainfall patterns, migrating disease vectors such as malaria and West Nile virus, bleaching of coral reefs, and species extinction. These changes are likely to affect agriculture and fisheries, increase prevalence of floods and droughts, and displace hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Habitat Alteration

Conventional logging practices and conversion of forests to tree plantations reduces biodiversity, degrades wetlands and limits carbon storage capacity. Limiting carbon storage capacity represents a significant contribution to climate change beyond the energy use described above.

Genetically modified (GM) trees are used to produce softer fibers, greater pest resistance and higher herbicide tolerance. GM trees allow plantation managers to produce wood at a more rapid pace with lower costs. These crops are transforming wood cultivation and redesigning forests to meet the needs of tree farming. Recently, some have expressed concern over the impacts that GM trees can have on a forest’s ecosystem, overall health, and surrounding biodiversity. Genetically modified plants create genetically dominant species that diminish biodiversity when their genes spread to surrounding areas. Subsequently, new types of trees are being engineered with reduced reproductive capacity. As a result, trees are cultivated with little pollen and fewer flowers, seeds and fruits. These food sources are important to forest food chains and overall well-being. Of similar concern is the use of herbicides in GM tree plantations: GM trees engineered to have increased chemical tolerance encourages farmers to use more herbicides, affecting the soil, water, forest wildlife and human health (Johnson, 2004).

Living trees serve as carbon sinks, holding more carbon than they release. According to Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of Bronx Ecology, tree plantations host about 90 percent fewer species and store much less carbon than the forests that preceded them (EPN, n.d.). Annual carbon emissions from the paper and pulp industry would require about 650,000 acres of intact forests to sequester, whereas over 30 times that acreage, 21 million acres, of pine or fir plantations are needed to store the same amount of carbon (EPA, 2008a).

Forests are the largest single land use source of carbon sequestration in the United States (EPA, 2008b). Since 1990, however, their effectiveness as a carbon sink has declined.  As reported in the Union of Concerned Scientists magazine, Catalyst, “Carbon sequestration by forests and other lands decreased by approximately 20 percent from 1990 to 2001, a decline stemming primarily from unsustainable timber management (especially on privately owned forests) and the clearing of forests for development” (Manion, 2004).

US Fish and Wildlife Service reported that 75% of the plantations established in the last two decades in the American Southeast, an important paper producing region, have been established at the expense of natural forests. Converting an intact forest to a tree plantation results in decreased carbon sequestration and also reduces the wetlands protection provided by the natural forest. The conversion of forests to plantations is the leading cause of freshwater wetland loss in the Southeast (EPN, n.d.). Without trees and other plants in place, wind and rain easily wash away topsoil into waterways. The lack of forest vegetation and soil increases the risk of flooding, which often destroys wetlands and decreases the likelihood of forest regeneration. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers also wash away with the soil, accumulating in fish and aquatic sediment.

Papers manufactured with post-consumer waste and chain-of-custody certified fibers from responsibly managed forests can greatly reduce the carbon emissions and habitat alteration associated with paper production. See the Specifications section for more details on specifying the best copy paper.

End of Life Management

Waste paper can be reused, recycled or composted, but at the end of its typically short life, much paper becomes solid waste destined for landfills and incinerators. Of the more than 30 million tons of printing and writing paper consumed in 2007, barely half was recycled (PIAC, 2007). Recycling saves trees, water, and energy, whereas landfills pollute the environment and occupy valuable land. Though half of all paper and paperboard  is recycled, they still make up about 34% of municipal solid waste (MSW) (EPA, 2008). When paper decomposes in the anaerobic conditions of a landfill, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas nearly 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Paper products are also sent to incinerators, or “municipal waste combustors” (MWCs), for disposal. MWCs generate several forms of waste: ash residue; wastewater from cooling and ash dewatering operations; and air emissions (MA DEP, n.d.). Government regulations, pollution controls like scrubbers and filters, and compliance monitoring control some of the waste. Nevertheless, the following emissions, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MA DEP, n.d.), are associated with MWCs:

  • Acid gases, such as hydrogen chloride and sulfur dioxide, that contribute to acid rain and can cause or aggravate breathing problems;
  • Chlorine-containing organic chemicals, including dioxins and furans, that are known or suspected to cause cancer and birth defects;
  • Fly ash and soot particles, seen as smoke, that reduce visibility and can hinder breathing;
  • Heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, that can affect the human brain, kidneys, liver and nervous system, as well as child development; and
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx), a chief ingredient of ground-level ozone, that can cause or aggravate breathing problems.

Though recycling paper saves water, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and diverts solid waste, it is not without some environmental concerns. Deinking, the process of turning recycled paper back into pulp, creates paper fiber biosolids as a byproduct (known as “sludge”). Deinking sludge consolidates impurities (e.g. coatings, dyes, and staples) and sometimes hazardous chemicals that may otherwise have spread through landfills and waterways. The slurry should be disposed of responsibly, though it is not strictly regulated across the United States and Canada. Some pulp mills sell sludge from virgin pulp-making and deinking to soil amendment manufacturers. Using sludge as a soil amendment can pose a threat to humans if it contains hazardous chemicals and pathogens like E. coli that make their way into waterways and food chains (Pearson, 2005). Burning sludge to generate electricity has air quality implications and also requires that the material first be dried. Heavy metals in sludge may be less prevalent than in the past, when these metals were used more often to make inks and pigments (FOE, 1997).

Social Issues

Many prime logging sites are home to indigenous groups. Paper and pulp manufacturers often violate the land rights of these rural communities, which are disproportionately burdened by the environmental consequences of logging, milling, and paper-making.

For instance, the provincial government of Ontario, Canada granted forestry permits to two forest product multinationals on Grassy Narrows First Nation’s traditional lands. The lands were opened to commercial entities without the Nation’s full and informed prior consent, violating their constitutional rights as indigenous people. According to the Environmental Paper Network, “Forestry has devastated Grassy Narrows’ territory, with more than 50% of the land having been clear cut, destroying the habitats of the plants and animals that form the basis of traditional livelihoods: [foraging] for food, fiber and medicine. Replanting by [the forestry company] Abitibi has been with tree plantations that are heavily sprayed with chemicals that have negative impacts on berries and other plants.” Similar clashes between paper companies and native people have been cited in Brazil, Finland, New Zealand, Russia, and Indonesia (EPN, 2007).

Related Documents

EPN, State of the Paper Industry, 2007

RPN, Responsible Purchasing Guide for Green Power, April 2008

EPN, Common Vision, 2002

EPN, Paper Steps: Taking Steps to Environmentally Responsible Paper, 2008

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