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Sourcing The Most Sustainable Paper

Sourcing The Most Sustainable Paper

Apr 12th 2022

This Earth Month, the theme is “Invest in our Planet.” One of the biggest impacts you can have on your product, packaging, and corporate sustainability efforts is to use paper produced with the environment in mind.

Using paper instead of plastic does not automatically mean you’re using a more eco-friendly material

Sourcing paper for packaging, office supplies, or accessories can be confusing! There are several styles, coatings, colors, thicknesses/weights to choose from, and a world of options to supply your project with source inputs. If you’ve been tasked with procuring paper-based packaging, make sure you are doing due diligence to ensure the paper products you’re using are not inadvertently causing more harm than good.

Many brands move away from plastic altogether in their supply chain and product packaging. While this is awesome for marine and environmental plastic pollution and curbing reliance on virgin petroleum, it typically also means that the bulk of this packaging is then replaced with a paper alternative. Paper is an excellent material and alternative, but for brands moving from plastic to virgin paper, they unintentionally substitute one environmental harm for another: the use of trees to make their (often single-use) packaging.

Prioritize your paper inputs for sustainability

We follow the guidance of (and partner on various projects with) Canopy - a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting the world’s ancient and endangered forests, a cause we deeply believe in and support.

Canopy has developed a hierarchy of paper source inputs called the  Paper Steps. At EcoEnclose, we follow this same recommended guidance to ensure that our paper packaging products benefit forests and ecosystems in the USA and beyond instead of putting further strain on them.

In order of priority and preference, the inputs are:

#1 Post Consumer Waste (PCW) recycled content
  • Sourced from blue bins and recycling streams across the country. PCW is the paper and cardboard you recycle at home, work, or commercially. Using this source input creates a direct demand for recycled content and increases its value and the value of the recycling industry.

#2

Post-Industrial Waste (PIW) recycled content (also called pre-consumer waste)
  • Sourced from paper manufacturing processes. This paper never meets the hands of a consumer and is collected at a manufacturing / converting facility, baled, and sold on the recycled commodity market.

#3

Agricultural Residue Fiber (also called Next-Gen fibers)
  • The keyword here is: residue, not the crop itself. NextGen fibers use the parts of a crop that have no existing purpose or use and make paper from it. An example is wheat straw. While the wheat itself is harvested to produce flour and other consumables, the straw of the wheat is not needed and is often either disposed of, left on fields, or composted separately. Using an existing waste stream, like agricultural residues, creates new markets for what is otherwise considered a waste product.
    • It’s important to note that agricultural residues are preferred to paper source inputs made from “on-purpose” crops, which are grown solely to be made into packaging or consumable material. Read more below.

#4

On-purpose crops (developed to be made into packaging or consumables fiber) fix carbon and support soil regeneration
  • Miscanthus and hemp- when it is not an agricultural residue.
  • Examples of on-purpose crops that do not improve carbon and support soil generation:
    • Bamboo paper and the corn-based biopolymer PLA rely on the growth and use of a crop to be produced. We don’t believe this is a good use of land, water, and fertilizers. Growing demand for these croplands can lead to clearing forests to make space for their growth- that’s the opposite of what we want!

#5

FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified AND free of Endangered and Ancient (High Conservation Value) forest fiber.
  • FSC certification is the preferred certification for virgin paper sourcing (over SFI) by Canopy.
  • Although FSC certification entails the highest standards for sustainable tree fiber sourcing currently available, an important note is that FSC-certified does not always mean a paper does not impact or pull from Ancient and Endangered Forests.
  • Therefore, this #4 (last) input is a 2-part requirement: FSC certified and free of Ancient or Endangered forest fiber.

A note about bamboo:

Many people promote bamboo as “tree-free” paper. However, the reality is much more complicated. Bamboo is grass and is fast growing. However, bamboo is also a primary food source for pandas (so we certainly don’t want to be clearing native bamboo for paper!). Industrial bamboo production is often accomplished by clearing ancient and endangered forests. In general, FSC certified, sustainably grown bamboo is on par with sustainably grown trees, NOT from primary (ancient/endangered) forests. Read more here.

Ensure non-tree-based fibers, like NextGen agricultural waste, are grown beneficially and sustainably

Again, we turn to Canopy for guidance here. Canopy has named RSB certification (Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials) as their preferred and ideal method to validate and approve the impact of tree-free fibers and agricultural residues/nextgen fibers. As the industry moves towards non-tree-based fibers for papers and packaging, we must do our due diligence to ensure responsible sourcing. We don’t want to encourage bad agricultural practices, even in the production of the primary crops whose residues become nextgen fibers!

Avoid paper made with Ancient or Endangered Forest fiber

While a paper supplier (or FSC code) may not always say the forest of origin in its certification or mill information, this is a critical step in ensuring your paper is scot-free. Work with your supplier and the paper mill in which you’re sourcing the source material. Ask them to confirm the forest(s) of origin for your particular blend of paper, paperboard, or corrugated.

Canopy ForestMapper Application Graphic

Once you can confirm this information (or get a good idea), check it against the Canopy ForestMapper Application. You’ll want the origin forests of your paper fibers to be far, far away from any of the world’s most important Ancient and Endangered Forests. If they’re from or close to these forests, work with Canopy or your suppliers to source new fiber.

You can also use the ForestMapper Application to see how your procurement may intersect with some of your other important climate and sustainability goals: endangered species (tigers, elephants, rhinos, orangutans, etc.), soil carbon sinks, forest carbon density, rainforests, and watershed boundaries, among others.

Recycled content: the unsung hero of carbon, biodiversity, and climate goals

Using recycled paper instead of virgin paper has significant benefits. According to the Environmental Paper Network, replacing a ton of virgin paper with recycled paper has the following impact:

Virgin Versus Recycled Copy Paper Metrics

Using recycled content paper instead of virgin saves carbon, water, and energy. It also keeps trees from being grown to make packaging and clears your brand from any potential of negatively impacting or harming ancient or endangered forests through paper procurement. Potentially the best part, recycled content paper is often lower in cost than a virgin alternative.

Use tools like the Environmental Paper Network’s Calculator or our Sustainability Savings Calculator to see how much of an impact your paper sourcing may have on your overall sustainability goals and how switching to recycled may move you closer to these goals.

Easy switches for recycled paper alternatives

The more you know, the better decisions you can make! Check out the below alternatives, made with recycled content, that can often replace your virgin paper options with little or no impact on appearance and function.


Purpose Virgin Product Recycled Alternatives
Foodservice and home goods

(paper plates, bowls, napkins, paper towels, toilet paper)

Wax-coated, bleached virgin paper/paperboard - The wax or poly-based coating keeps the paper from absorbing moisture from food.

Soft bleached papers - Typically found in napkins, toilet paper, paper towels, tissue. Most of these products (if white) are made with 100% virgin tree fiber and little-no recycled content. Though used for cleaning purposes, these materials are often bleached and virgin.

Fiber-based packaging, unbleached - Often made with agricultural residues or non-tree plant fibers (like bagasse, hemp, bamboo, sugarcane, etc.) Remember that PCW paper is still higher in value than these inputs.


Soft unbleached papers - Typically found in napkins, toilet paper, paper towels, tissue. Often made with 100% recycled content and high (90-100%) levels of post-consumer waste. This is an easy switch and helps to clear your consciousness of impacting forests while cleaning yourself and your home!

Printing and Writing Papers

(books, copy paper, magazines, notebooks)

Coated papers - Typically found in magazines or catalog prints. To achieve the sheen and glossy finish of coated paper - is typically used in magazines, flyers, and other advertisements - paper production prefers to use 100% virgin tree fiber. Virgin fiber means longer paper fiber lengths and higher overall strength - which keeps the paper running efficiently through the pressurized calendering manufacturing process. This process applies intense pressure to the paper to remove water and achieve a glossy finish.

Virgin or bleached copy paper or newsprint paper - Typically used in books and publishing, notebooks, office supplies, etc.

100% Recycled Uncoated Paper - Used for a variety of purposes and applications. Copy paper/envelopes/office paper. Opting for unbleached recycled paper prevents added chemicals from being used in this process.


100% Recycled Newsprint - Typically, newsprint/newspaper stock is 100% recycled - with ~30% or higher post-consumer waste.

Cardstock

(notecards, packaging accessories, business cards, hang tags)

FSC-certified - For all-virgin content cardstock

SFI-certified - 
For all-virgin content cardstock

100% Recycled Cardstock - Typically available in a range of colors, though stark white may require bleaching. Look for PCF terminology (processed chlorine-free) for a lower chemical footprint. At EcoEnclose, we offer cardstock for notecards, business cards, and hang tags in white, gypsum (off-white), and kraft colors. All are 90 - 100% recycled content, with high post-consumer waste levels.

Inner Packaging Paper

(glassine bags, polybag alternatives)

Glassine - By nature, clear glassine paper is almost always made with 100% virgin tree fiber.

Kraft and Seal Bags - If translucency and transparency are not necessary for your needs, you can opt to use a 30 - 40# kraft paper for the bag’s makeup, made of 100% recycled content and 60 - 90% PCW.

Paperboard

(product packaging, paper mailers, retail/display packaging)

Solid Bleached Sulfate (SBS)
  • White on front and back
  • 0% recycled content
  • Bleached

Clay-coated Newsback (CCNB) - White on one side and gray on the other, 100% recycled content (~30% PCW)

Clay-coated Kraft Back (CCKB) - White on one side and kraft on the other, 100% recycled content (~30% PCW)

Tan Bending Chipboard (TBC) - Kraft brown front and back, 100% recycled content (~90%+ PCW)

Corrugated Cardboard

Standard Kraft Cardboard - < 20% recycled content, though this is uncommon. Most kraft corrugated cardboard contains at least some recycled content. Ask your vendor/supplier to confirm the cardboard’s recycled to virgin ratio.

Mottled-White Cardboard - Can be white/white or white/kraft. The white part of this cardboard is almost always made with a virgin and bleached paper, called a “linerboard.”

For a white/white Mottled White corrugated box (where both sides of the cardboard are white), the internal flutes are typically the only part of the cardboard that could be made with recycled content. If so, this makes the board roughly ~30% or less recycled overall.

For a white/brown Mottled White corrugated box (where one side of the board is white, the other kraft), if the kraft corrugated and fluting is recycled content, the board would be ~60% or less recycled overall.

FSC-certified - For all virgin-content corrugated cardboard

SFI-certified - For all virgin-content corrugated cardboard

100% Recycled Kraft Cardboard - Kraft on both sides of the cardboard. Comes in a variety of fluting, ECT strengths, and double-walled applications. 100% recycled, high levels of PCW (EcoEnclose’s corrugated boxes have 95% PCW content.)

Tissue Paper

Bleached white or fully-colored tissue paper - Check product specs, this kind of tissue paper is usually virgin paper or contains low recycled content.

Colored tissue paper is usually made with virgin paper fiber because the new fiber readily absorbs the colored dye used to recolor the paper as it’s being produced. For this reason, tissue paper manufacturing prefers virgin fiber for colored tissue - it allows them to use lower volumes of dye to accomplish the ideal result.

100% Recycled Tissue Paper - Check the product specs to confirm recycled content - ideally 100% - in your tissue paper. 

Opt for a printed option to accomplish a branded experience for customers while using recycled tissue. Typically, this printing is a scatter print / random-repeat design at 25% ink coverage or less. (At EcoEnclose, we offer flexographic printing on our stock white or kraft 100% recycled tissue paper.)

Low ink coverage on tissue paper makes it more valuable to recyclers who accept it and acceptable for composters. High ink (or dyed color) coverage makes the paper less valuable for recyclers, who need to do more work to de-ink the paper before selling it.

Void Fill / Decorative Paper

(packaging paper, ornament shred, or shredded paper)

Virgin or < 20% recycled content paper (30-60#) - Uncommon, but possible. Kraft packaging paper is typically made with at least some recycled content. White paper maybe 100% virgin tree fiber


Paper Shred / Crinkle Paper (white or colored) - Typically colored shredded paper is made with no recycled content in order to absorb as much colored dye (in production) as possible. White shredded / crinkle paper may be made with recycled content, but more often than not is virgin.

Side note: Crinkle Paper and Shredded Paper are not accepted in most curbside recycling collections. (The MRF has trouble collecting and sorting it due to each piece’s minimal size.) If the shredded paper is low in color or ink coverage, it can be composted in industrial or backyard applications.

100% Recycled Kraft Packaging Paper - 30 to 60# weight options. 100% recycled, typically 30% post-consumer waste.


100% Recycled Newsprint / Bogus Packaging Paper - 30 to 50# weight options, 100% recycled typically 40% post-consumer waste.


NextGen Packaging Paper (EcoEnclose option) - 30# weight, 80% recycled content, 20% wheat straw agricultural residue (next-generation fiber).


100% Recycled Ornament Paper Shred - 80# weight, indented kraft paper.

Where to find recycled and ancient-forest friendly paper and packaging:

Check out the EcoPaper Database, meticulously managed and updated by Canopy. This resource allows you to filter paper products by factors like post-consumer waste recycled content, regional availability, basis weight, ancient forest friendly, etc.

A note on 100% post-consumer waste content:

Since post-consumer waste is the preferred #1 input for paper products, aim to max this figure out whenever possible. You may have noticed that, except for soft paper goods like paper towels or napkins, it’s uncommon for recycled paper products to have 100% recycled PCW content.

At this time, it’s uncommon to find 100% PCW papers for paperboard and corrugated cardboard purposes. Since PCW fiber has a shorter length than virgin tree/ PIW/Agricultural residues, its strength is inherently a bit lower. While the technology and understanding of increasing paper strength for papers with 100% PCW content are evolving, we have a ways to go. We’re hopeful that 100% PCW corrugated cardboard and paperboard that has comparable strength to virgin paper will be readily available soon.

The Big Three Takeaways

If we’ve done a good job, the three most important points of this content that stick with you should be:

  • Use recycled-content paper, wherever possible, and as high levels of PCW as possible.
  • There are many recycled paper(board) material options on the market that can achieve the same or similar results as virgin paper, often at a reduced cost!
  • When you need virgin fiber, make sure it is both FSC certified AND is Ancient and Endangered Forests free, as those forests are an irreplaceable asset to our planet and home to some of our most treasured species of animals

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