Paper and Planet

Pulp’s new series about sustainability.

An interview with Chiara Medioli, vice-president of Fedrigoni, about the challenges posed by environmental issues when choosing and using paper.

By John L. Walters
Illustrations by Rob Loweaka Supermundane

People’s commitment to sustainability is going to be stronger after the crisis caused by the pandemic,’ says Fedrigoni’s vice-president Chiara Medioli. She is aware that companies are under the spotlight when it comes to making sustainable packaging and materials, whether they are big manufacturers like Fedrigoni; famous brands that use paper and board for communication and packaging; or smaller firms such as design studios, who play a crucial role in specifying materials and advising on their use and consumption. So it is vital to think clearly about choosing the right paper for each job. Virgin, non-recycled paper is a suitable choice for a book or art catalogue that will be treasured for years, while recycled board may be the most sensible option for an item of packaging that will be discarded soon after use.

Medioli uses the analogy of a good cook who is concerned about the quality of the ingredients, but also sensitive to the guests about to eat. ‘Sometimes people think they are doing everything they can with the sourcing of the ingredients, but if they make something indigestible (i.e. unrecyclable) it becomes someone else’s problem down the line.’ To understand paper, one has to understand what it is made of, and the role of its raw materials in the ecological big picture. ‘We use water, minerals and pulp to make paper,’ says Medioli. ‘You use water and it goes back into the cycle. The minerals (for coated paper) are mainly calcium carbonate, essentially ground stone, and there is an abundance of stones. The third raw material is pulp, which comes from the wonderful, renewable machine that is a tree.’

Fibres and forests

Medioli explains that humans have relied on forests for thousands of years, using timber for shipbuilding, construction and energy. Today, paper and board production accounts for twelve per cent of wood production worldwide. It is in the interest of those who manage the world’s forests trees are healthy and grow fast: during the growing phase (the first ten to fifteen years) a tree absorbs the most CO² from the atmosphere. Papermaking is essentially an electrochemical reaction between fibres that enables the paper to hold together. Using trees for pulp is a relatively recent development. Originally the fibres came from cotton, hemp and linen rags – in the past from discarded clothes and more recently from the tiny threads around the throwaway part of cotton buds, after the textile industry has taken the best, longest fluffy fibres. True examples of a ‘circular economy’, these recycled fibres are long enough to be soaked in water and beaten; they then interweave, naturally, in random patterns. But they are expensive. The process using wood pulp was discovered in the late eighteenth-century. Wood was cheaper and could meet the huge demand for all the paper needed for books and newspapers following the industrial revolution, when schooling became widespread in the West.

Performance, virtue and beauty: pick two

The demand for paper from well managed certified forests – a fully renewable resource –came first from publishing companies, who had experienced pressure from lobbying groups such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, and from their own customers. Then came the packaging sector. Since the paper industry is among the most sustainable of businesses, Medioli warns against what she calls a ‘blind environmental enthusiasm’, focused solely on the use of recycled raw materials. This can lead to challenges in terms of quality, utility, performance and aesthetics. Fedrigoni’s technical labs have conducted numerous tests on folding and creasing, establishing beyond doubt that paper made with fresh fibres from well managed forests is three times more resistant to repeat folding. ‘The problem with recycled fibres is that you have to renew them,’ says Medioli. ‘You could choose to de-ink them, but whatever you choose to do you have to put them in the pulper again. You crush them once more and in doing so the fibres become shorter. You can only do that five times, after which the fibres are so short they cannot blend. Since recycled paper doesn’t have a sticker on it saying this has already been recycled three times and only has two uses left, recycled paper has to be a mixture of new and old fibres to work. The higher the proportion of recycled papers, the lower the performance of the paper.’ Medioli is keen that paper users understand that recycled stock that uses post-consumer waste is ideally left grey or brown, which is fine for shipping boxes, or for shoebox board – a much bigger market than the specialty paper sector. ‘If you use aggressive bleaching to make the paper white, you end up with lower performance and higher environmental impact because the paper has travelled more, and there is higher water consumption and more pollution because of the chlorine used to remove the ink from the paper.’ One form of recycled paper that avoids this conundrum uses ‘pre-consumer waste’. Medioli explains that this paper ‘comes from processes immediately post-paper mill, from unprinted excess paper or leftovers from die-cutting envelopes, and is a better alternative altogether.’

Designers and brands have to think hard about their priorities when choosing materials. Medioli says: ‘Only in a fairytale world can you get fabulous results from 100 per cent recycled paper without giving up the beautiful, consistent colour quality synonymous with the brand.’