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Paper Industry is Waking Up to the Size of its Water Footprint
Green Futures, 23 Jun 10

From pulp to paper is a thirsty process. Can the industry shrink its water mark?

by Anna Simpson

Knock a glass of water over a page. The fibers will soften, the ink will run, the corners will curl. Wet paper is no good to anyone, but few people realize just how much water goes into producing the dry, white page.

“You need water to grow the trees, clean the wood, separate out the cellulose from the lignin, turn the pulp into paper, and then steam dry it,” says Gilles L’Hermitte, Sustainability Development Manager at paper manufacturers Arjowiggins Graphic. Which all adds to the argument for recycled paper. “If you start with an ‘urban forest',” as L’Hermitte calls it, “you’ll need much less water to turn old pulp into new paper than if you start with a tree.” Arjowiggins Graphic estimates that their mills use up to 47% less water for paper from de-inked pulp than from virgin sources. And, they claim, because the recycled pulp has to be cleaned so many times to rid it of all the ink, it comes out even whiter than the virgin page.

Along with many other sectors, the paper industry is waking up to the size of its water footprint – and the need to shrink it. Last year, the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) became the first federation member of the European Water Partnership, which aims to push the water issue up the agenda for policy makers and business alike. CEPI also signed up to the Water Footprint Network, the non-profit partnership set up by WWF, UNESCO and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, amongst others, to increase awareness of water use.

But while some mills wait for legislation and incentives, others are taking a lead. Dalum, a Danish mill owned by Arjowiggins Graphic, is driving its footprint down by recycling water up to 13 times internally before sending it to a biological treatment plant. The plant gathers any organic material along the way for use in fertilizer, before discharging the clean water into the Naestved Canal. And in Bessé-sur-Braye, a small town in the Loire, another Arjowiggins mill is capturing the steam used to dry the paper to drive a combined heat and power plant, selling electricity back to EDF.

Of course, the industry’s concern for its environmental impact comes second to (and is driven by) concerns about its future – with worries over the impact of electronic media high on the list. “The market in the UK for coated wood-free paper declined by about 20% in the last year,” says David Cook, Managing Director of Arjowiggins Graphic, “and we’re not likely to see that come back. Digitalisation could halve the demand overnight. You can’t bury your head in the sand. Newsprint has adapted: we have to adapt as well.”

So how does a paper company react to falling demand? In part, says Cook, by redesigning themselves as communication experts, rather than just paper providers. “There’s a huge demand for really clear information to help business make informed judgments about the best ways to get their message across. It can’t always be paper.”

This piece originally appeared on Green Futures. Green Futures is published by Forum for the Future, one of the leading magazines on environmental solutions and sustainable futures. Its aim is to demonstrate that a sustainable future is both practical and desirable – and can be profitable, too.

Image of wet notebook paper courtesy of Flick photographer theilr under the Creative Commons License.

Sidebar image of data via Green Futures.

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The equation between the virgin and the recycled for water usage is slightly off - you need to add a percentage for the inital use of water - that was required to make the recycled paper's raw materials (paper) Without the first paper (which needed water for the trees etc) there would be no recycled paper.

Posted by: Lynne on 24 Jun 10

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