100% Green, this week

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  November 7, 2007

We thought it made sense to print the Phoenix’s “Green Issue” on 100 percent recycled paper, procured through the Montreal-based paper producer Abitibi-Consolidated. By doing so we’re helping to decrease air emissions, save a few trees, and conserve energy.

That we don’t normally do so isn’t unusual in the industry; nationally, newsprint averages 35 percent recycled fiber. In the Northeast, it’s more like 32 percent, according to the Northeast Recycling Council. And papers owned by the New York Times company (including the Times itself and the Boston Globe) are printed on paper with 26 percent recycled fiber.

Newsprint only represents 8 percent of US paper production. The largest sector is containerboard (like shipping boxes) at 31 percent, followed by printing/writing paper, at 28 percent, and then boxboard (like cereal boxes), at 21 percent. Daily newspapers consume 80 percent of the country’s newsprint. About 70 percent of newsprint is recovered through recycling efforts, as opposed to less than 50 percent of printing/writing paper. This is all to say that a weekly newspaper has a relatively small tree-killing footprint. (And we give ourselves pats on the back for consistent workplace recycling.)

Still, about 4 million tons of US newsprint comes from virgin fiber (which means trees that just got cut down) each year, says Tyson Miller, director of the Green Press Initiative, which previously worked to increase recycled content in book publishing and will branch out to tackle newspapers in 2008. (Book publishing amounts to a mere 1 million tons of paper annually — both recycled and virgin.)

The magazine industry, which is part of the printing/writing paper sector, is creeping along more slowly. Frank Locantore, director of the Magazine Paper Project of Co-op America, reports that 1 percent of more than 18,000 magazine titles (this number, from the American Society of Magazine Editors, includes both consumer and trade publications) are printed on paper that is at least partially recycled; add catalogs to that sector and the recycled share jumps to a whopping 5-6 percent.

“There is much greater movement in the last year or two, but there is a very long way to go still,” Locantore says of efforts by magazine publishers to switch to recycled paper.

Some of the greener mags aren’t surprising — Mother Jones and Adbusters, for example. But Shape and Fast Company have also made the switch, to 40 percent and 100 percent recycled paper, respectively. (One publication that hasn’t gone to the green side is Vanity Fair, which published its much-touted “Green Issue” in May 2006. Despite a bevy of insightful eco-articles, and an ethereal Annie Leibovitz cover shot of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Julia Roberts, George Clooney, and Al Gore, the issue contained exactly zero percent recycled paper.)

After paperboard, tissue, and containerboard, newsprint is the fourth-ranked user of recycled fibers. It used to be that the quality of recycled newsprint was far inferior to virgin paperstock — weakened through repeated processing, and unable to hold ink as well, which made photos and images show up poorly. But “at this stage, the quality concerns no longer exist,” Miller says. “They did about a decade ago. But not now.”

In fact, the real obstacle to more widespread use of recycled newsprint may be a supply crunch on the part of paper manufacturers. There are several contributing factors here: what the physical equipment in printing plants and paper mills can handle; how much paper is recycled to be re-made into newsprint; and expansion of the more-convenient “single-stream” recycling, which piles all recyclables into the same bins (but makes it harder to efficiently separate glass and plastics from paper, according to the Environmental Paper Network).

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