There are a number of types and grades of paper. Categories of paper products include printing and writing papers, newsprint, tissue and towel, containerboard (corrugated boxes and cartons), boxboard (cereal, and shoe boxes), and a host of specialty products. Within the printing and writing category are paper grades used for books, magazines, catalogs, brochures, calendars, business forms, commercial printing, and copy paper. Copy paper accounts for about half the volume of printing/writing paper produced annually.
Some paper products have relatively minimal requirements, requiring neither high strength nor unblemished appearance. At the other end of the spectrum are paper products requiring adherence to exacting standards for appearance and performance. Printing and writing papers, which include paper fed into desktop printers and office copy machines, sit at the top of the hierarchy.
Like paper products in general, production of printing/writing paper is both energy and water intensive, and requires large quantities of fiber – the vast majority of which is wood – as well as inorganic fillers. There is growing interest in lower impact paper products, and especially in high recycled content paper. In some circles there is also interest in non-wood based paper products, again inspired by desire to reduce the impacts of paper production. However, accurately identifying paper products with the lowest environmental impact can be a daunting task. Office supply stores and on-line vendors typically feature an extensive array of printing/writing paper. Recycled contents of displayed products range from zero to 100 percent, weights from 16 to 24 pounds , and fiber from wood to bagasse and sometimes even hemp and bamboo. Complicating matters is the reality that what may seem to be the obvious low impact product (such as 100% recycled content) is often far from the lowest impact option.
While selecting products with some level of recycled content desired, we conclude that moderation in demand for the level of recycled content, and insistence on post-consumer fiber exclusively, is advisable. Taking all factors into consideration, our view is that printing/writing paper with 10-30 percent recycled content – recycled content that includes pre-consumer waste – is what environmentally conscious consumers should be specifying in purchasing.
This report examines the environmental impacts of printing/writing paper and various aspects of environmental impact. Products are examined in a total system context, an essential requirement in identifying lowest impact products from among a number of possible choices.