Material Monday: 6 things to look out for when choosing sustainable papers

Material Monday: 6 things to look out for when choosing sustainable papers

Posted 19 October 2020 by Katie Kubrak

What to look out for when choosing sustainable papers? The multitude of papers available today may come across as overwhelming when wanting to select the most sustainable options that are relevant for the sustainable story you wish to write with your brand, packaging or product.

Our Materials & Insights team wanted to share with you a comprehensive manual for you to use and reference when choosing sustainable papers. A manual created for your benefit and benefit of the environment.

Our team divided the process into six straightforward steps, which will help you to determine the ecological footprint, which in turn can help you make the right choice for you. These include the source of the fibre, making process, energy source, water consumption, carbon emissions and recyclability. All covering the entire lifecycle of the material:

  1. Source of fibre

Paper is made out of cellulose fibres. These can originate from a range of sources such as wood, wood offcuts and scraps, cotton, cotton scraps, bamboo, algae, fruit peels, grass and more. In essence, virgin fibres (i.e. new pulp) will tend to be stronger, lighter and characterised by longer fibres. It directly translates to the durability of the surface and its ability to look very premium. For this reason, many sustainable papers, which utilise by-products or alternative sources of fibre will still contain a big proportion of virgin fibre. When considering sustainability what is very important is the traceability of fibre, its origin, and sustainability of practices with which the raw materials were harvested or obtained through. This can be clearly indicated with a range of acquired certifications. All of the above breaks into things to look out for:

  • Virgin fibre comes from forests. Look out for: origin, proportion, production process, certifications.
  • Recycled fibre can be distinguished as pre-consumer waste (i.e. factory waste) or post-consumer waste (PCW). Both are valuable as they reduce the pressure on forest lands. However, with each cycle of recycling the fibre becomes shorter making it a mixed loop material. These can only be used between 4-7 times before becoming too fragile and unusable. During the recycling process these might also undergo a de-inking process to offer a more consistent colouring across entire batch. Look out for: origin, proportion, production process, certifications.
  • Alternative sources of fibre further decrease the pressure on forest lands. These are usually obtained from other industries including fruit/veg produce and associated peels, cotton, leather, bamboo, flowers, grass, algae and more. Subsequently, papers made out of these are called ‘tree-free’. Diverting these by-products from the landfill means creating a more sustainable and efficient material flows. Look out for origin, proportion, production process, certifications. In this case, origin may add invaluable element to the sustainable story.
  • International certifications that set a standard for best practice and ensure that wood is sustainably sourced from well-managed forests that are worth noting with regards to source of the fibre include:

2. Making process

Pulp, its production and additions such as pigments can create mixtures of ingredients that can have variable sustainable credentials. A number of certifications communicates relevant information about papers being void of any harmful ingredients and being produced without use of any hazardous chemicals. Important information and certifications to look out for include:

  • Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF)
  • Totally Chlorine Free (TCF)
  • Process Chlorine Free (PCF)
  • Heavy Metal Absence CE 94/62
  • Acid Free
  • Long life ISO 9706

3. Energy

European pulp and paper production accounts for 24% of global output. It is reported to absorb 12.6% of the EU industry energy consumption. Nevertheless, this industry is the largest user and producer of renewable energy with around 50 % of the primary energy consumption coming from biomass. With this in mind you can look out for the following:

  • Proportion of energy coming from:
    • Wind
    • Solar
    • Geothermal
    • Biomass
  • Certifications
    • EU Ecolabel – It is awarded to materials that meet high environmental standards throughout their lifecycle: from material extraction, to production, distribution and disposal. Therefore, it is a signifier of reduced consumption of electricity, emissions and improved waste recovery.

4. Water

Water plays an essential role in paper-making. It is an indispensable element to each stage of the process. Consequently, it is an industry that remains one of the biggest consumers of water on the planet. However, “growing attention to water scarcity and pollution results in new legislative directives, forcing industries to reduce their water use and pollution, and motivating them to implement innovations and carefully observe the impact of measures.” As a result, it is worth acknowledging that statistically 90% of the mill’s water intake in Europe is returned to its source cleaner than the original intake. Important factors to look out for include:

  • Source of water
  • In-mill water circuits, i.e. how many times the mill is able to reuse the water
  • Amount and cleanliness of water returned to the source
  • Certifications that serve to reduce by-products that can have harmful effects on our ecosystem:
    • Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF)
    • Totally Chlorine Free (TCF)
    • Process Chlorine Free (PCF)
    • Heavy Metal Absence CE 94/62
    • Acid Free
    • Long life ISO 9706
    • ISO 46001 Water efficiency management systems
    • ISO 14001 Environmental management systems

5. Carbon emissions

Production of 100,000 sheets of virgin fibre paper equates to a life-cycle carbon footprint of 6,000kg. This is based on energy consumed to extract raw materials, produce paper and dispose of it in the landfill eight times. Eight is based on the fact that paper fibres can be recycled up to 7 times with 8th disposal being the final one. “The same amount of paper recycled seven times, has a life-cycle carbon footprint of 3,200kg.” This is again based on the amount of energy required to extract materials, manufacture the material, recycle it seven times and then dispose of it in the landfill. To ensure emissions of your selected paper are minimised you can:

  • Choose paper with recycled fibres
  • Choose paper manufacturers that use renewable energy across their chain of custody – extraction, production, transportation
  • Choose paper products that have been carbon balanced
  • Choose suppliers that support impactful conservation projects
  • Most popular certifications include:

6. Recyclability

It might come as a surprise but not all papers can be recycled. Yes, you read it correctly! Not all papers can be recycled. The reason for this is that not all papers are made out of cellulose fibres, which is what the recycling infrastructure is optimised for. In some cases, cellulose fibres and be mixed with plastics or bioplastics to equip the surface with additional properties. These include aesthetically pleasing transparency when embossed or ability to seamlessly bond when subject to heat and pressure. In other cases, papers might not even be actually made out of cellulose fibres. A great example of that is stone paper, which is manufactured from calcium carbonate bonded with small amount of HDPE plastic resin. Look out for:

  • Fibre type (point 1 – ‘Source of fibre’ will help you determine that)
  • Recyclability codes that will signify that the paper, board etc. you are looking at can be recycled. They include:
    • #20 PAP – Corrugated fibreboard, i.e. cardboard boxes
    • #21 PAP – Non-corrugated fibreboard, i.e. cereal and snack boxes
    • #22 PAP – Paper, i.e. newspapers, magazines, books, leaflets, letters, swing tags etc.
  • End of life guidance provided by the manufacturer supported by relevant recycling codes

Each of these steps will not only help you to choose a sustainable paper, but it will also enable for you to write a sustainable story for your brand, packaging or product. Being experts in everything sustainable, we can help you source environmental papers and other materials that are sustainable to help fast-track your project to production, while ensuring your sustainable message and credentials are impeccable. Feel free to get in touch via