And tell the real story of print and paper

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FOPAP is concerned that current drives by national and local government and private sector entities to increase the use of recycled paper and board - as opposed to paper and board produced from virgin fibre - and to shift communications online and away from printed matter may be a serious mistake in terms of carbon emissions, whatever other benefits such moves might have.

Before explaining why, it might be helpful to outline the place of paper in the carbon cycle.

Paper and board are made from trees. The trees that serve as the raw material grow by fixing carbon dioxide from the air and water from the soil by means of photosynthesis to form a hexose sugar and subsequently other organic compounds. This is a complex sequence of reactions but overall it can be described by the equation:

                                    6 CO2 + 6H2O --> C6H12O6 + 6O2

The resulting hexose sugar serves the plant as both an energy store and as a structural building block. In the case of the trees from which paper is made, a portion of the hexose sugars produced by photosynthesis are used to make substances such as cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, and it is fibres formed from these substances that are the main components of paper. All of these components of paper were originally synthesised by the tree from the carbon dioxide that it fixed by means of photosynthesis and all of the carbon present in the tree and, subsequently, the paper made from it, was once present in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

In the paper making process the tree is essentially pulped to produce a sort of 'soup' and this is then laid out and dried in flat sheets to form paper. The major components of these sheets are the celluloses and lignins that were present in the tree and which were made from the hexose sugars produced by photosynthesis. Therefore all the carbon compounds present in paper were synthesized from carbon dioxide that was once present in the atmosphere.

Until such time as the carbon compounds in the tree (if left to die in the forest) or the paper (if the tree was felled and turned into paper) are broken down they represent sequestered carbon that was once present in the atmosphere in the form of CO2 but which has, for a longer or shorter time, been removed from it. The process by which such carbon compounds are broken down is not one of spontaneous, random decay. They are broken down because other, heterotrophic organisms feed off them as a source of energy and structural components, and in order to break them down the heterotrophic organisms require the right suite of enzymes (catalysts) for the particular molecules in which the carbon is to be found. In so far as they are used as a source of energy they are broken down by means of respiration. Like photosynthesis, this is a complex series of reactions but its overall equation is the precise opposite:

                        C6H12O6 + 6O2 --> 6CO2 + 6H20

So, once this process has been completed, the circle is closed and exactly the same amount of CO2 has been returned to the atmosphere as was present at the outset; no more, no less.

In the particular case of trees and paper, the main molecules in which the carbon is to be found are cellulose and lignin. These molecules are highly resistant to being broken down because very few organisms possess the right suite of enzymes to digest them.

The process of turning trees into paper requires a considerable amount of energy. The precise amount varies depending upon the type of paper being produced and how efficient the mill is. Typically it requires less energy to produce paper from recycled fibre than from virgin fibre. The fact that the production of paper 'x' consumes more energy than paper 'y' does not always mean that more CO2 was emitted in its production. This is because some paper making processes/sites are able to extract a portion of their energy requirements from biomass (deemed to be carbon neutral), mills located in different countries and drawing their power from national grids or local sources of power will differ in how much CO2 was emitted to generate that power. As a result papers vary widely in the amount of CO2 emitted in their production.

Figures can be anything from 9 kg CO2 / tonne paper to over 2,000 kg CO2 / tonne paper.

For the sake of argument, let us assume an average of 1,000 kg CO2 / tonne paper (remember, this is an 'average', real figures for actual papers are spread over a very wide range). As explained above, paper contains carbon that was ultimately sourced from atmospheric CO2. Different types of papers contain different amounts of carbon and therefore represent different amounts of 'locked up' CO2. However, the ratio between the carbon in the paper and the atmospheric CO2 that this represents is always 44 [molecular weight of CO2] / 12 [atomic weight of C]. FOPAP is currently assuming a carbon content of paper of 428 kg C / tonne paper, which therefore represents 1,569 kg CO2/tonne of paper.

On the basis of the above figures, a tonne of paper, after production and until it is broken down, locks up a net 569 kg CO2.

Our concern is as follows. Most models being used or disseminated in the UK, whether they take the form of full blown 'life cycle analyses' (LCAs), advice given consultants or requirements laid down in invitations to tender appear to assume that, post-use, paper will decay rapidly; and is therefore of no interest as a means of sequestering carbon. The carbon content of paper (and the CO2 it locks up - 428 kg and 1569 kg /tonne respectively in our model) is assumed irrelevant because it is assumed it will quickly be broken down and returned to the atmosphere as CO2. In such a highly assumed scenario, all that matters is the energy consumed to produce the paper and the associated CO2 emissions. Since the production of recycled papers generally (not always) consumes less energy than virgin fibre papers and since this lower energy consumption is often (by no means always) associated with lower CO2 emissions, the conventional argument is that recycled papers are more environmentally friendly because they cause lower CO2 emissions.

FOPAP believe there is good grounds for believing these assumptions to be false.

Most of the people who have actually studied the behaviour of waste in landfill report that relatively little paper breaks down ('is digested' would be a more accurate way of putting it) and that much of the paper (and therefore the carbon it contains) may remain intact for decades and probably centuries. If this turns out to be true, it has the following potential consequences:

1.Paper in landfill is acting as a carbon sink and should be recognised as such and should be incorporated into the LCAs for paper /board. To date, we have not seen a single LCA that does take it into account. Since they are failing to take into account what is potentially a significant means of sequestering carbon, the conclusions they reach are likely to be flawed.

2.It is only paper made from virgin fibre that can sequester carbon in this way.  Using, for the sake of argument, the figures given above, every tonne of paper made from virgin fibre locks up around a surplus of half a tonne of atmospheric CO2. If it is sent to landfill and does not decay that half tonne of CO2 remains locked up. In order to satisfy ongoing demand for paper, a fresh batch is then made from virgin fibre and locks up another half tonne of CO2 and so on - with each tonne of paper made from virgin fibre another half tonne of CO2 is locked up because the paper contains the equivalent of more CO2 than was emitted to produce it.  If, on the other hand, the first batch of paper was not sent to landfill but was recycled, it locks up no more CO2 - it simply doesn't release what was already locked up - but energy is consumed (and CO2 emitted) to produce that paper; so, for that second batch the paper is a net emitter of CO2 not absorber - whereas the second batch from virgin fibre is a net absorber, as was the first - and so on every time the cycle is repeated.

3.The 'net' CO2 locked up in paper - and especially in paper made from virgin fibre in many cases, is more than enough to compensate for the CO2 emitted during the printing process. As such, many printed products are already carbon neutral or, even better, net absorbers of CO2; only the people producing and using them do not realise this because of the flawed LCAs for paper/board that are current. This benefit is most marked with virgin fibre.

4.Online communications, e-comm's, e-media, call them what you will, offer no such carbon sequestration benefits. The true carbon emission costs of online communications are little publicised but are almost certainly much greater than most sending or receiving them assume. In any event, since printed communications on virgin fibre are potentially net carbon absorbers and online communications are inevitably to as some yet to be determined degree carbon emitters, the drive to switch to online communications by many organisations, including central government is therefore, in carbon terms, misguided; whatever benefits it might or might not have in terms of costs or convenience.

5.Likewise, the drive to switch from virgin fibre to recycled fibre paper currently being pursued by many organisations is also a mistake, since in our model it is virgin fibre that offers the greatest potential for carbon sequestration.

6.If we are correct and landfill has in fact been sequestering carbon, then encouraging paper from landfill to recycling will reduce the amount of such sequestration in future and may in fact actually worsen atmospheric CO2 levels. Promoting recycling may therefore not simply be pointless but actually damaging.

Since emission limits, carbon trading schemes and so on are likely to become more and more significant in the future, it seems to FOPAP that they should at least be based on a realistic model of what is happening with the carbon, whereas most of the initiatives currently being pursued today seem, in our view, to be at best misguided and, at worst, potentially catastrophic.

(C) 2011