ENVIRON has completed a life cycle assessment, commissioned by National Geographic Society, to examine the environmental impacts of using recovered fiber for magazines in general versus using virgin fiber. The LCA results show there is a benefit in 14 of 14 environmental impact categories studied to using recovered fiber derived bleached pulp versus virgin bleached pulp (either mechanical, or kraft or a kraft/mechanical blend). Categories studied include total CO2 equivalent, carcinogenicity, eutrophication, wood use, and other elements. The study primarily focused on North American pulp production. In response to stakeholder interest we also completed sensitivity analysis in four key areas, namely (1.) the amount of energy used in pulping, (2.) the fuel mix used in pulping, (3.) the environmental impact characterization method used in the model, and (4.) the method for allocating recycling benefits in the model. Our analysis shows that, even considering the range of possible values for these key areas, recovered fiber still has a consistently lower environmental impact for the majority of environmental impacts.
While the study did not specifically contrast use of pulp in alternative products, the results are useful for exploring this topic. For example, we cannot say that using recovered fiber pulp for one product would have a greater environmental benefit than using recovered fiber in another product, unless specific mills and competing paper products are studied. This is because the sensitivity analysis shows that, due to the range of mill specific characteristics regarding fuel mix and energy efficiency, we cannot distinguish between impacts of alternative products produced from any combination of recycled, mechanical or kraft pulp studied. It is possible that a future analysis at the individual mill level may indicate that a specific grade of recovered fiber pulp used to displace a similar grade of virgin fiber pulp for one product may have greater or lesser environmental impact than displacing virgin fiber pulp for another product.
“Lisa Grice and the ENVIRON team did a terrific job of working through a very complex set of questions, and National Geographic hopes that the resulting report contributes to the industry’s body of knowledge on the subject”, said Hans Wegner, Chief Sustainability Officer for the National Geographic Society. “The study project was a multi-year, collaborative effort undertaken by the Society and a number of NGO stakeholders, including Green America, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and World Resources Institute (WRI), whose participation was invaluable. We appreciate the time and attention they contributed to the process. The information gleaned will further inform our own paper manufacturing purchasing practices, which are developed around the criteria of quality, performance, availability, affordability and environmental impact. Ironically, increasing the use of recycled fiber in our publications could involve increased costs, and it is our additional hope that we can work with the our paper suppliers to find practical solutions to these challenges, as well as with industry, policy makers and the public at large to increase the recycling of paper products in general. Increasing recycling is good for the planet, and a greater supply of recycled fiber may make it more affordable.”
“We are glad that National Geographic has determined that it is environmentally preferable to use recycled paper in its magazines,” says Frank Locantore, Director of the Green America Better Paper Project. “We look forward to news in the near future that National Geographic and other publishers have begun incorporating recycled paper into their magazines like hundreds of others, including Fast Company, Audubon, YES!, and Ranger Rick – publications that have been doing so for a long time.”
“This study confirms that businesses can reduce the environmental impact associated with the paper they buy by prioritizing recycled content,” says Darby Hoover, Senior Resource Specialist, Natural Resources Defense Council. “We hope that National Geographic, as one of the nation’s top producers of nature publications, takes immediate steps to incorporate the highest feasible recycled content into their magazine and other paper purchases, and sets goals for continued improvement in its paper attributes over time.”