Sustainable paper resources – why isn’t anything changing?

Ten years ago I wrote this article on renewable paper sources, posted on the website for my first freelance design business while living in California. At the time, there was real hope in the industry that people would begin to employ these resources instead of relying on deforestation. And my article was by no means revolutionary at the time.

So what’s happened in the last decade? 

Naff all it seems. Printing prices have come down, companies are printing more, and alternative paper sources are still considered inferior by “corporate standards”.

I’m sure there have been significant advances in the last decade, so this article may be out of date in some respects. But enjoy the read, and if you’re a designer or marketer yourself, consider the alternatives next time you organising a print job.


The safeguard of our natural resources is the most crucial factor to the survival of humans and all other animals on this planet.

Cut down all the trees and we have no oxygen to breathe, no root systems to hold soil in place against erosion, no housing for some billion species of animals and insects that play a vital role in the earth’s ecosystems. Trees are sage giants that keep giving and demand little or nothing in return; they provide shade and their presence inspires calm and dignity whether or not we are aware of it.

Conventional paper manufacturers also rely heavily on chemicals to process paper. These chemicals are then released into our rivers, lakes and oceans.

Pollute our waterways and we destroy the diverse plant and animal life that again are a part of the ecosystem we depend upon. We also must spend millions of dollars in the re-purification of this water, which does not always eliminate all contamination. In the end, we feed ourselves toxic chemicals.

We cannot wait until the damage caused to this planet is irreversible. With dwindling forests, melting icecaps and chemicals in most of the earth’s water, we are already overdue.

Many people are skeptical of recycled paper as they have the reputation of looking a little grey, and often speckled. This holds no longer true. The ecologically responsible paper industry has come a long way since then and now produces papers as bright and smooth as any high-end paper product you expect of the conventional companies. The quality usually exceeds the latter because these papers are acid-free, and do not turn yellow after several years. Not only are these results now available at normal prices, many of them have never been a tree, ever!

Paper can be made from any fibrous material. Here are just a few examples of what is available for paper manufacturing:

KENAF – Kenaf is a plant originating from Africa and is a member of the hibiscus family. It is currently being tested as a hopeful alternative to cutting trees. It can grow up to 12-14 feet in as little as 4 to 5 months. U.S. Department of Agriculture studies show that kenaf yields of 6 to 10 tons of dry fiber per acre per year are generally 3 to 5 times greater than the yield for Southern pine trees, which can take from 7 to 40 years to reach harvestable size. Because kenaf is grown for the fibrous stalk, and not the fruit or flower of the plant, insecticides are not required. Because this plant requires an additional 60-90 days of frost-free conditions to germinate, kenaf will never run wild throughout the United States. (1)

HEMP – Being a relative of the marijuana plant, industrial hemp is illegal to grow in the United States. However, while marijuana contains 7% to 10% of THC, hemp contains only .09% of this psychoactive chemical. Furthermore, the mature marijuana looks like a bush while hemp is a stalk that will grow between 6 and 16 feet tall. Hemp will produce 10 tons per acre in 4 months (that’s 4 times more than an acre of 20-year old trees), and can be grown in a variety of climates. The plant resists diseases and shades out weeds so the use of chemicals is not required during cultivation. Additionally, hemp paper can be recycled 7 times versus 3 times for wood pulp paper. It can also serve as an alternative for edible oil, automotive oil, cooking and heating fuel, fabric, medicine and construction beams. It is really in our best interest to legalize the growth of industrial hemp soon! (2)

COTTON – Cotton is the world’s most widely used natural textile fiber, grown in over 70 countries and meeting nearly half of our clothing needs. About 35% percent of the cotton plant is used for fiber. The rest—seeds and gin trash—go into the food chain, either as industrially processed cooking oil or animal feed. Unfortunately conventional cotton farming is extremely chemical-intensive. According to the California-based Sustainable Cotton Project, in the United States, nearly a third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is required to produce the pound of fiber that goes into a T-shirt. Whether cotton paper comes from textile scraps or from cotton linters, the fine fuzz that surrounds a cotton seed, it is important to support sustainable, chemical-free organic cotton farming. Cotton is also often mixed with other recycled paper fiber for a high quality paper type. (3)

OTHER – Many of the fibers left from plants we already grow for food go to waste after harvest, including rice, wheat, sugar cane and coffee. In the United States alone, an estimated 150 million tons of straw goes underutilized each year. In fact much of this waste is burned, only aggravating the pollution. Instead, these remainders can easily and economically be turned into paper. Scrap material such as the leftovers from the manufacturing of denim jeans, or old money can also create tough and beautiful paper products. Our resources are limitless; we just have to sever our dependence on the clearcutting of trees! (4)

HYDROGEN PEROXIDE – Being a safer alternative to chlorine bleach, the use of hydrogen peroxide in paper making could reduce the dioxin-bearing waste into rivers by 80%! (5)

VEGETABLE INKS – Vegetable inks are more biodegradable and produce less solvent air pollution in their manufacture and use than petroleum-based inks. This is safer for employee health and the environment. Commonly used vegetable oils are soybean, safflower, linseed, canola and corn. (6)

As with anything, a big change will inevitably appear to be a major obstacle. But with each step we take, the surroundings become more familiar and soon we are able to look back and laugh at our irrational fears.

We can start as individuals by understanding the source of everything we come across. For example, the fluorescent white junk mail we handle daily; what was it before? What processes were used to make it look the way it does? What resources were used to make this process? What will happen to it when it gets thrown away?

The next step is to re-evaluate our own dependency on paper. Are there things you do that can be handled in a paperless way?

Reuse as much existing paper as possible. Most printouts you handle are still half good! Stack them face down and use them as scratch paper or for in-house prints. If you work in an office, set up a box near printers and garbage cans to catch this paper. If you want your “note pad” to look neat you can always staple a small stack together. Not only will you promote environmental awareness but you will save yourself or your company money.

When paper is totally unusable, then recycle it. If you work in a large office that does not have a recycling program, initiate one! Most cities offer recycling services, and attractive recycling containers are easily available (old crates work great too).

The next time you need to purchase new paper, research not just recycled papers (which should be a minimum of 30% post-consumer content), but tree-free papers as well. Look for companies that offer such products, many of whom will send you samples at no charge. Some even offer a full spectrum of environmentally friendly office supplies, from recycled pencils, computer disks and ring-binders to biodegradable disposable plates for your next company picnic.

Demanding that your stationery and marketing collateral be printed on environmentally-sound products and using vegetable inks is another step you can take to ensure the preservation of our irreplaceable natural resources. This step may prove more difficult as from our recent experiences, conventional printers tend charge more for printing on paper that they believe may not be compatible with more cost-effective printing methods. Be persistent; if a printer refuses to work with the paper you want, find another!

Create the demand!! The more eco-friendly products we support the lower the prices will drop for these items, as retailers will be pushed to buy larger bulk quantities from the manufacturers.

(1) Vision Paper
(2) Ecosource Papers
(3) Watershed Media and Markets Initiative
(4) Watershed Media
(5) Ecosource Papers
(6) University of Vermont Environmental Council

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