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Remember - to use paper, any paper, is to have an impact on our environment!
Our greater goal should to be to promote reduction of consumption.


All the Water Was Clean:
Recycled Paper's Role

by Rick Meis, Treecycle Recycled Paper

Water. The subject of many conferences, books, lawsuits and fights. Water. Our lifeblood. We are inextricably tied to it in this thin biosystem we call earth. We are a part of this interconnected system.

Two decades after the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 (known as the Clean Water Act) was passed by Congress, our nation's waterways no longer catch fire. They even look clean. But they carry a myriad of invisible toxic wastes. This poses a threat to fish, wildlife, and people.

Congress is now addressing reauthorization of the Clean Water Act (CWA). This is a major environmental issue and much colorful rhetoric is flying. There are many concerned conservationists who worry it may fall the way of the Clean Air Act - it may slow degradation, but it will continue to allow degradation. It may shift the burden to cap pollution of already "dead" waters and loosen standards for currently clean, even pristine waters. Spread the wealth, so to speak.

Montana's East Boulder River is an example of what may happen. It is currently pristine; not just clean water, but about as clean as you can get in this day and age. That is not good enough for some. Mining companies working on the Stillwater Plateau above the stream applied for and received a permit to degrade the East Boulder. It's okay, they say, it'll still be pretty clean. The 1995 Montana Legislature loosened water quality standards for the whole state. This could happen a lot of places.

In 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did a water quality inventory of our streams and rivers. The conclusion: 37% do not meeting fishing and swimming standards set by the CWA. This may not be the whole story, either, as only 36% of the waterways were monitored.

Industry dumps an average 360 million pounds of toxic wastes into our nation's water each year, about 1.5 pounds of pure toxic material for each man, women and child in our country. This is despite the fact that we have more control over the pollution of our waters than most countries. A Nature Conservancy study that found 65-70% of bottom-of-food-chain aquatic species in our waters are classified rare to extinct.

Many conservationists and biologists say the current CWA language and amendments have not yet been met. The state and federal governments are not carrying them out. In other words, it is not the Clean Water Act per se that is the problem; the problem is implementation and enforcement. This is what Congress should address. State and federal agencies must aggressively pursue and enforce our water quality.

Pick Your River: Success or Disaster?

Let's look at the Willamette River in Oregon. It is used as example by the EPA as a success of the restoration provisions of the CWA. It no longer has rafts of sewage and industrial goo floating on it. Over 200 miles of greenway have been acquired along the waterway. The Army Corp of Engineers, in 1989, said of the Willamette that it is "one of the cleanest streams of its size in the nation."

Despite these apparent positive reports, concern is growing. Conservationists in Oregon say the Willamette far from restored. A 148 mile stretch of the upper river has unsafe levels of dioxin from the pulp and paper mills along the river. Many other toxins violating water quality standards have also been documented including DDT, PCB's, chlordane, arsenic, and a variety of heavy metals. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality says current water quality is not completely known.

An aquatic ecologist for the state of Illinois notes that our water quality will not improve without federal leadership and money to implement the CWA. This may be part of the answer.

However, each of us, as responsible individuals, should take personal steps. We cannot wait for someone else to do it. Think of what you can do; be aware of what you buy. Each and every action you and I take results (or already has resulted) in some amount of water pollution. We often do not think of it because the pollution is not direct from our immediate action. The pollution is the result of the production in a separate location. Examples would be each time we use a piece of paper, read a magazine, pull the junk mail out of our mailbox. With your knowledge, you can educate your co-workers, friends, and family. Over-consumption is the culprit. To make things, sell things, and use things requires the exploitation of resources, energy production, waste and pollution. We as consumers want a lot of stuff and we want it cheap.

The Impact of Paper and the Effect of Recycling

The U.S. paper industry's reliance on chlorine-intensive bleaching is a very significant part of the water pollution problem we face in our country. This industry may be the worst water polluter in the world. Pulp and paper mills are among most polluting of factories. Despite claims of the American Forest and Paper Association and the industry, chlorine is not necessary in paper production.

This industry has become a behemoth, awkward and slow, in the global picture. Europe's paper technology is more environmentally advanced than that of the U.S. (and so is their recycling). Japan's paper technology is more environmentally advanced than that of the U.S. (and so is their recycling). Remember the automobile?!?

REAL recycled paper is one way to address these issues. It not only reduces waste, but water and air pollution, energy production, and resource consumption. But keep in mind - not all recycled paper is created equal. In recycled paper fiber, post-consumer is the key. Pre-consumer, recovered, and wastepaper are terms that essentially mean you are being taken for a ride in marketplace. Most of these latter three are materials that has always been used. Many papers labeled recycled barely reduce waste (if at all) and do nothing to reduce pollution. In fact, these papers actually do more harm than good, hurting recycling by reducing demand for collected post-consumer wastes. For example, most "recycled"toilet paper in the grocery stores have very little post-consumer fiber and in some instances are the same as what has always been made, products that are on the shelves without the recycled logo.

Post-consumer waste is what you and I would take to the recycling centers. Paper is choking landfills; 40% of municipal waste is paper (and 5% of that is junk mail). To make recycling work we, as consumers, have to ask PCW content and the bleaching process. Be wary of print shops, stores and catalogs that don't tell you; they want to sell you something. Just because it says recycled doesn't mean it is environmentally sound.

Real recycled paper requires less harmful chemical use. It has already been processed once and has had the lignins and other non-fiber components of the wood removed. Ideally, unbleached, 100% PCW paper is what more people, businesses, and organizations should be using on a regular basis. It is available but demand is quite limited. Unbleached post-consumer material is good for paper products like toilet paper, cardboard, and envelopes. No quality question there. It has recently proven itself as good for stationery, copy and printing papers.

Significant advances in paper technology have been made in Sweden, Germany, Japan, and yes, even the U.S. The quality is there in recycled paper. This new technology includes better de-inking, pulping, whitening, and lay up that allows higher PCW content. Many of the new high PCW papers are virtually interchangeable with virgin papers.

We tend to "over-use" the quality of the paper for the job. For example, do we need every paper to be perfect, bright white? What does white mean to you? White. Purity, cleanliness. In paper, white means chlorine bleaching - mutation, cancer, death. Chlorine means toxic organochloride byproducts like dioxins, PCB's, and others going into our waterways.

Industry has been touting necessity of chlorine since dioxin issue came to light, but has been using unacceptable spin-doctoring to feed public misinformation. The Chlorine Institute was formed to promote necessity of using chlorine; even promoting benefits. An all or nothing campaign. Just because they spent a lot of money does not make it right. This is a common scenario in our country.

Misinformation comes from other sources, too, including in March, 1994, column by syndicated columnist Alston Chase (Bozeman Daily Chronicle). It sounds like he is being paid by plastics and paper industry as he touts chlorine as being in nature and therefore not harmful. He notes that no research has found dioxin dangerous. To the contrary, the opposite is even documented by the paper industry; he seems to fail to recognize the related facts. In December of 1991, a pulp and paper industry publication noted in an editorial that it was time to "forget the arguments about safety...of chlorine-bleached paper pulps, the argument has been lost."

Increased tolerances in recent years by the federal government for dioxin are misleading. It is still the most toxic of carcinogens known. It is a chlorinated organic compound, also known as organochlorides, and shares the company in that classification with other less strong ones, including PCB's, DDT, furans, and endrin. Remember endrin? It is no longer registered for agricultural use due to it's persistence in the environment. Dioxin can be 10,000 times more toxic than endrin.

Toxicologists are also expressing concern over the impact of dioxins on the reproductive and immune systems in wildlife and people. These problems have arisen through the use of certain herbicides which contain chlorinated organic compounds.

The toxicity in question is not easy to understand, as it does not immediately manifest itself in visible forms. Chlorinated organic compounds like dioxins and furans and PCB's do not readily biodegrade. In fact, the opposite is the case; these compounds often forms as recombinants from other processes. An example would be the burning garbage in incinerators.

As well as this persistence these organochlorides bioaccumulate (stay in the body and do not seem to go away) thus head up food chain. We all recall the impact of DDT on bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Luckily these birds are recovering. Things are not simple anymore; we invent complicated processes and create new molecules. We don't necessarily understand roles or impacts of these actions or the secondary and cumulative impacts. We are part of a closed system and everything we do is going to have an impact.

Recycled Paper's Role?

Real recycled paper reduces solid waste in landfills as its primary function. Combined with other recovery and recycling , we can create compact landfills, which would be easier to contain and less less costly to develop. Subsequently, it would be easier to monitor and should result in less water pollution problems. It is a new source of raw material currently not being used well.

The paper industry is one of the largest energy users in U.S., and high post-consumer paper would reduce energy consumption up to 70% over processing virgin pulp. This has a cumulative benefit of reducing problems associated with energy production.

Common knowledge is that recycled paper will reduce our dependence on diminishing natural resources. Again, this is only true of high post-consumer recycled paper. Industry will tell a different story - but as usual they tell the public only part of the story. What do you expect from an industry whose major lobbying and public relations group is the same organization that also does these functions for the timber industry as well.

The U.S. uses over 200 billion pounds of paper a year with use increasing significantly. Recycled paper uses 55% less water to produce than virgin pulp. Another distinct advantage is that recycling creates more jobs than current extractive industries.

One of the greatest roles that real recycled paper can have is to reduce pollution in the production of paper. A reduction in water pollution by 35% or more is possible and it can eliminate many of the high-end toxic pollutants. Absolutely no chlorine, which is the major culprit in water pollution caused by the making of paper, is needed to make recycled paper. The use of milder chlorine derivatives by several recycled paper manufacturers is a step towards less polluting production techniques. Recent interest in recycled paper and especially an awareness of paper production pollution is leading to better and cleaner manufacturing methods by paper companies.

The Consumer's Role

What you as a consumer does is the most important step in reducing pollution and cleaning up our water. Using less paper reduces water pollution far more than using even the best recycled paper. Remember the 3 R's: first, reduce what you use; next, reuse what you can; and then recycle the rest.

A part of recycling that many people have not thought about is to use products made with post-consumer recycled materials. Using real recycled paper does make a difference.



Assmann, David, ed. Fact Pack 6:3 Abstract (Comprehensive report on the state of paper recycling.) Conservatree Information Services (May, June 1993) 44 pp.

Ayres, Ed. "Whitewash: Pursuing the Truth About Paper." World Watch (Sept., Oct. 1992), 17-25.

Botts, Paul, Ethan Siedman, and Bill Breen. "An Inside Look at Paper Recycling." Garbage (Sept., Oct. 1993), 30-37.

Crawford, Colin, Ken Scott, and Robert Rubovits. Forest Products: The Greening of Timber and Paper Profits." (Research Report) Council on economic Priorities, June 1992.

Kroesa, Renate. The Greenpeace Guide to Paper. Greenpeace Books, 1990.

McGivney, Annette. "Troubled Waters." E Magazine (Sept., Oct. 1993), 30-37.

Platt, Brenda, and David Morris. "Economic Benefits of Recycling." Waste Reduction News (Sierra Club) (Summer 1993), 5-6.

-----. Dioxin and Bleached Pulp and Paper. (Issue paper) Wisconsin Paper Council, April 1990.


This paper ©1996, Rick Meis, Woodelf Inc. Contact Woodelf, Inc. for for permission to reprint all or part of this article. (v396)

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