North American Coalition for Maintaining Mother Earth

Posted by Mikalah On January - 7 - 2013 1 Comment

We might not like to admit it, but the paper our books are printed on have a pretty sizable carbon footprint. While they might not actually use that many trees (less than 1% of the international timber harvest goes towards book pages) they do require pretty hefty amounts of energy to get them from forest to front-page.

Paper mill

The Green Press Initiative, an American body devoted to “advancing sustainable patterns of production and consumption within the U.S. book and newspaper industries and within the paper industry at large” awakens us to the fact that each book produced emits approximately 4kg of CO2. Most of this (62%) comes from the energy used to cut down the trees in the first place and to power the mills that make the pulp into paper.

Even those trying to defend the paper industry, such as the British group Two Sides who insist that “print and paper have a great environmental story to tell” produce figures that hardly exonerate them. They estimate that it requires 500kwh to produce 200kg of paper (the amount the average person uses a year). This, they tell us, is the same as running a computer non-stop for 5 months, or burning a 60w bulb non-stop for a whole year. The emissions released in this process add up to between 130 and 250kg of CO2, the same as driving the average family car 600 miles. Although these figures relate to all types of paper, not just books, the processes for book paper and office paper manufacture are similar, even if the proportion is far smaller for books.

The environmental impact of the paper industry is pretty sizable, then, and what is more, these industrial mechanisms might seem something that we can do very little to change. But this doom and gloom needn’t depress us, because in many ways the paper industry does have a wonderful environmental story to tell, though strangely not one that the Two Sides group put much emphasis on.

Biofuels We Can Love

Yes, I said it, biofuels. But these are not those nasty first-generation biofuels now widely called “agrofuels” – the ones that caused catastrophic increases in world food prices and are held responsible for yet more rainforest deforestation and soaring CO2 emissions from pesticides and fertilizers. These much nicer biofuels are second generation and come from the waste products of the paper mills themselves – the so-called Black Liquor that the process of turning pulp into paper produces.

Although the name itself sounds like an ecological disaster, pioneering Swedish company Chemrec have developed a refining process that turns Black Liquor into dimethyl ether (DME), a biofuel equivalent to petrol and diesel. Chemrec already run one mill in Pitea, Sweden, and are planning another elsewhere in the country. They say that mills with integrated refineries could easily produce enough DME to be completely energy self-sufficient and have a surplus to sell-on to other industries.

Although the company admits that the refining process is complicated and difficult to get right, (American company NewPage pulled out of their deal with Chemrec in July this year citing installation costs) the industry does seem to be a promising one. Indeed, the EU’s biofuel research body Renew found that BLG (Black Liquor Gasification) provides the highest greenhouse gas reductions for the least cost. Surely the paper industry can’t ignore these kind of results, and with mounting pressure from governments for businesses and industries to reduce their environmental impact, this may well be a route that many paper mills will want to take.


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  1. […] Polluter or Prophet? The Environmental Impact of Paper […]