Acid-free paper is paper that has a neutral or basic pH (7 or slightly greater) and is lignin- and sulfur-free. Acid-free paper production neutralizes the acids that occur in wood pulp to create longer-lasting paper that won’t yellow over time. The paper itself can last from 500 to 1,000 years, which has made it appealing to archivists and scrapbookers. The process to make acid-free paper is significantly more environmentally friendly than the process to produce standard paper as waste water and byproducts of the papermaking process can be recycled; energy can be saved in the drying and refining process; and alkaline paper can be more easily recycled. However, acid-free paper is an industry standard now, so don’t choose paper simply because it’s acid free; choose a paper that is environmentally responsible in some other way and is acid-free.
“Carbon Neutral” is a term used when referencing offsetting or eliminating those production processes that release carbon dioxide. Carbon neutrality, or having a net zero carbon footprint, refers to achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels with renewable energy that creates a similar amount of useful energy (or just using all renewable energy sources like wind or solar power), or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference.
You might see a number of chlorine-related claims on paper products. The bottom line: The chlorine bleaching process produces tons of toxins that may disrupt our immune systems. If you’re looking for top-shelf eco-friendly paper products, you want to find the “100% chlorine free” claim, which means the virgin paper wasn’t bleached with chlorine at any point, or – even better – the “processed chlorine free” claim, which indicates that the recycled content wasn’t bleached with chlorine. In researching chlorine-free paper further, you’ll find the following chlorine-free related terms:
“Elemental chlorine free (ECF) is a technique that uses chlorine dioxide for the bleaching of wood pulp. It does not use elemental chlorine gas during the bleaching process and prevents the formation of dioxins and dioxin-like compounds, carcinogens. Totally chlorine free (TCF) is a technique that uses no chlorine compounds for the bleaching of wood pulp for paper production. This prevents the formation of dioxins, highly carcinogenic pollutants.” [Wikipedia]
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paper labeled as “recycled” must be made from at least 30% post-consumer waste. That means that 30% has been used by a consumer, turned into a recycling program, and then reused to make new paper. Pre-consumer waste, on the other hand, uses paper materials that were discarded before they reached the consumer. A third term you don’t hear often is Mill Broke, which is paper trimmings and other scraps collected during the paper manufacturing process, and is recycled internally in a paper mill. While it’s good to use up that pre-consumer and mill broke waste, it’s even better to eliminate it from the paper production process altogether (since those are still using virgin paper), which means buying recycled paper with the highest post-consumer waste content that you can find is the most ideal situation. For example, Mudlark notecards are made with 80% post-consumer content and Quotable Cards boast 100% post consumer content, both very eco-friendly choices for writing that thank you note!
You might find paper products labeled with a “recycled content” or “contains recycled content” claim. In these cases, the product usually has less than 30% post-consumer waste or contains only pre-consumer waste. While it’s great to buy products that use any amount of recycled content, these paper options are on the low-end of the eco-friendly paper scale.
Traditional ink is petroleum-based, so soy and vegetable based inks are a gentler alternative. Soy crops take considerably less impact on the environment, they are available in bright colors, and make the paper they are printed on easier to recycle. To make soy ink, soybean oil is slightly refined and then blended with pigment, resins, and waxes. Even though soybean oil is an edible vegetable oil, soy ink is not edible or 100% biodegradable because the pigments and other additives that are mixed with the oil are the same as those used in petroleum-based inks.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC) are both non-profit, non-governmental organizations that promote responsible forest management. Seals from these organizations indicate that paper has been approved in their certification processes. As is the case whenever multiple organizations provide the same function, there is significant debate over which certification is better; in North America, it seems the preference is for the FSC seal.
FSC Certified: The Forest Stewardship Council is an international non-profit promoting responsible forest management through its developed principles and wood tracking system. This logo identifies products that contain wood from responsibly managed forests that have been independently certified according to the rules of the FSC.
PEFC Certified: The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes is an international non-profit that incorporates multiple national forest certifications intended to make the forest certification easier and more applicable to different types of forests.
A tree-free fiber claim on a paper product means that material was derived from a source other than trees. These tree-free options are usually a little more expensive but provide you with the most sustainable paper option over the product’s life cycle. The benefits of using non-wood sources are much more than just saving the world’s forests. Tree-free paper production processes are also more environmentally sound, requiring fewer chemicals and less energy. Traditionally, the plant sources of tree-free fibers regrow rapidly and the harvesting of the plants does not disrupt natural ecosystems (a perfect example is the lokta bush).
Tree-free paper comes from four main sources: Agricultural Residues (bamboo, straw, wheat, etc.), Fiber Crops (hemp, soybeans, etc.), Textiles (cotton, textile scraps), and Vegetable or Fruit Fiber (banana stalk, mango leaf, pineapple husk, etc.). A notable fifth source has only recently been established – that of animal dung with PooPooPaper at the forefront.
Editor’s Note: The eco icons you see in this article are the exact logos you will see on products on EuropeanPaper.com – so you can clearly identify eco products to aid you in your green shopping! Check out the PooPooPaper Elephant Journal and Moleskine Classic Pocket Ruled Notebook for two examples. This eco-glossary includes content from Maggie Marton’s Guide to Recycled Paper, published here on European Paper Company’s Blog.