Office paper, tissues, toilet paper, kitchen roll, and bouncing baby nappies – they have all probably undergone a bleaching process to bring them to you in all their bright white purity.
But how squeaky clean are they in reality?
We love paper in the UK and hold the heady position of being the 14th largest consumer of paper products in the world. Each person in Britain uses an average of 193.6kg of paper per year and our paper love-affair is not expected to fizzle out any time soon.
Pristine Paper White
However, the paper product industry is not as pristine as those blank white pads of paper might imply.
Paper-making impacts highly on the land, it’s very energy intensive, and the chemicals used highly toxic. Industrial emissions include dioxins, organochlorines, PCBs, arsenic, lead, phenols, and mercury amongst others.
Research has shown that these chemicals not only persist in the general environment but will also bio accumulate with time. They have been found in growing numbers in lakes, rivers, animals and in our bodies where they are thought to contribute to the development of cancers, reproductive abnormalities, birth defects and other health problems.
Virgin Pulp – Not So Pure
To meet our desire for bright, white products, the average paper mill may use up to 50,000 gallons of fresh water for each ton of pulp. Once used and contaminated, it is then got rid of as waste and if not processed with due care and attention, goes on to pollute the surrounding area.
One of the consequences of the paper industry is deforestation. If not done in a sustainable fashion by companies which work on ethical and environmentally sensitive principals, the logging industry can wreak untold damage on the eco-system forests support, causing floods, erosion, silting, loss of indigenous land, and loss of wildlife habitat.
Chemicals Used In Bleaching Paper
In order to get paper products the right kind of white, chlorine and its derivatives are used to bleach it into submission.
Any remaining lignin is removed from chemical pulp using chlorine gas and then treated with either chlorine hypochlorite or chlorine dioxide to give it more brightness.
Between 50 and 80kg of chlorine is needed to bleach each tonne of pulp of which approximately 10% will go on to bind with organic matter to produce furans, dioxins and other organochlorines.
From the back-lash concerns about dioxins, over the past decade or so a move has been made by the paper industry to reduce the amount of chlorine used in the bleaching process. Enter the winsome trio, TCF, ECF, and PCF.
Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) paper is made from virgin pulp but without the use of any chlorine compounds, and instead utilises peroxide and oxygen to brighten the lignin matter to achieve brightness.
Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) paper uses the same process in the early stages, but uses some chlorine compounds in the later stages to increase whiteness.
Processed Chlorine Free (PCF) paper refers to paper product which has some recycled paper as part of its make-up. The recycled element will not have been re-bleached using any chlorine whereas the part using virgin pulp will not have used chlorine at all.
Chlorine free paper mills only use two thousand gallons of water during this process and so can make a big difference just on this saving alone.
Green Is The New White
So next time you go to use a paper product, consider its cost to the environment and to the health of future generations. Ask yourself whether you really need to use it or whether there is a more sustainable alternative. And if you wish to make a difference, consider making the following changes:
- Buy paper from fair-trade, well managed, sustainable sources (for instance as labelled by the FSC)
- Use handkerchiefs not tissues
- Do not print unless you really need to
- Give up using paper cups, kitchen towel, napkins, and other products which are not needed
- Buy recycled paper
- Buy unbleached paper products wherever possible
- Buy chlorine-free paper products
- Always re-cycle paper and do not send to landfill