National Geographic Finds Using Recycled Paper Would Benefit the Environment

Adapted from a post written for Dead-Tree Edition by Green America’s Frank Locantore on behalf of our Better Paper Project. For more than a decade, Frank  has helped publishers switch to recycled paper, and today he explains a study commissioned by the National Geographic Society, which  found overwhelming environmental benefits to using paper containing recycled content.

New Life Cycle Analysis study shows that in 14 of 14 environmental impact categories studied there is an environmental benefit to using recovered fiber as a substitute for virgin tree fiber.

Recently, National Geographic Society changed course on recycled fiber, walking away from its long-held belief that using recovered fiber in its publications has negligible environmental benefit, and agreeing to explore recycled paper options. We are encouraged by National Geographic Society’s initial indication that they may begin printing on recycled paper soon. If they do so, they will join the growing list of other magazines that have been using recycled paper for a decade or more like, Fast Company, Audubon, YES!, and Ranger Rick.

In the case of National Geographic, Green America and many other NGOs encouraged the venerable publisher to re-examine its beliefs regarding recycled paper. In response, National Geographic hired an independent consultant, ENVIRON International Corporation, to determine if it made environmental sense for them to use recycled paper in their magazine. The results (shown below) clearly indicate that in 14 out of 14 environmental impact categories studied, the production of deinked pulp is environmentally superior to the production of virgin fiber pulp.

ENVIRON International Corporation was asked to answer three questions: 1) Is it better for the environment to use recovered fiber for magazines versus virgin fiber in isolation? 2) If so, can we show that it is better to use recovered fiber in an alternative product? and 3) Do supply limitations exist such that the use of recovered fiber in magazines would displace its use in an environmentally preferable alternative product?

Decision Chart

Question 1: Is it better for the environment to use recovered fiber for magazines versus virgin fiber in isolation? Yes.

In Figure 5 of the study (see below), it is clear that deinked pulp (green) has substantially lower environmental impacts relative to a 50% Kraft/50% Mechanical virgin pulp mix (blue) in all fourteen impact categories.

Relative Impacts

The central environmental question that all paper purchasers must ask is: “Which paper options provide the greatest environmental benefits and fewest negative impacts?” This Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) compared the environmental impacts of paper production between deinked pulp and virgin pulp. When compared to kraft and mechanical pulp, deinked pulp always has a smaller negative environmental impact.

Question 2: Can we show that it is better to use recovered fiber in an alternative product? No.

The fact is that magazine publishers are not choosing between printing on containerboard or newsprint or printing/writing papers for their publication. They are only considering paper options within the “printing/writing” grade.

National Geographic did not want to make the study “mill specific” to the mill they source their paper from, Verso Paper’s Jay, Maine mill. Rather, they wanted the results to be applicable for the entire magazine industry. However, this question can only be answered for a specific mill.

Lisa Grice, Sustainability Practice Area Leader for ENVIRON, wrote in her summary of the LCA:

[We cannot determine if there is a better use for recovered paper] because the sensitivity analysis shows that, because of 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 the mechanical or kraft pulp studied. It is possible that a future analysis at the individual mill level may indicate that a specific grade of deinked pulp used to displace a similar grade of virgin fiber pulp for one product may have greater or lesser impact than displacing virgin fiber pulp for another product, but this would be only applicable to the specific mills involved and not more broadly applicable.

While possible, it seems highly unlikely that virgin pulp production could have an overall environmental benefit considering the tremendous environmental advantage for deinked pulp that is demonstrated in this study. ENVIRON’s answering the question, “no,” indicates that it can’t be shown that recovered paper and deinked pulp would be better used to manufacture other products over printing/writing grades.

Question 3: Do supply limitations exist such that the use of recovered fiber in magazine would displace its use in an environmentally preferable alternative product? No.

I should reinforce that no environmentally preferable product has been identified. We all know that some industry stakeholders believe that there is a limited supply of recovered paper available to produce deinked pulp for recycled paper. While true, that “limited supply” is far from exhaustible and nowhere close to being adequately used.

It is difficult to predict how the market will react to increased recycled paper use in the US. Will increased demand create higher prices for recovered paper? Would potential higher prices for recovered paper drive better and more collection of valuable printing & writing paper, separated from the mixed grades where most of it currently ends up? Would increased demand for recycled content printing and writing papers reopen some of the shuttered capacity in recycled mills, potentially enabling even more customers to specify recycled content printing and writing papers? Would the US ship less recycled paper to China? Would more paper companies increase the supply of recycled papers?

What we know is that 9 million tons of printing & writing grade paper remains uncollected each year. And much of what is collected ends up mixed into lower grades that find their way into packaging or other non-printing & writing paper products. We also know the U.S. is behind a number of countries in collecting recycled paper, and that higher recovery rates are possible.

And, we know that National Geographic has their paper made by the Verso paper mill in Jay, Maine – only about 31 miles from Cascades’ Auburn Fiber deinking plant.

According to the supply study completed by ENVIRON and done in conjunction with the LCA, Tony Newman, the plant manager for Cascades, indicated that, they “currently have excess capacity, and if demand for paper with recycled content were to increase they would increase their capital investment, produce more, and meet the increased demand.”

From “The Availability of High Grade Paper with Recycled Content for Magazine Use,” prepared by ENVIRON, commissioned by National Geographic Society:

[I]t is likely that if demand for magazines with recycled content were to increase, then sufficient supplies of magazine-quality recycled fiber would be available. For a very large magazine, however, the state of world markets is not as important in terms of availability. It is likely much more regionally based. And the fiber they need is already available from a regional supplier [Cascades].

Could National Geographic’s demand for recycled paper simultaneously help boost the profits of Maine’s Cascades plant and reduce pressure on the environment? Based on the study provided by ENVIRON, such a move would benefit the environment, and it is hard to see how sourcing more pulp from Cascades could do anything other than increase profits and provide more employment opportunities for the plant’s community in Maine.


Going back to the questions in the “decision chart” at the beginning of this blog, all the arrows point toward “National Geographic to consider availability and cost of using recovered fiber for their magazines.”

1) The relative environmental impacts for deinked pulp are better than those for kraft or mechanical pulp in all environmental categories studied.
2) It isn’t demonstrated that it is better to use recovered fiber in non-magazine paper.
3) There are currently no significant limitations on recovered paper supply.

We applaud National Geographic’s effort and work to come to this conclusion, and look forward to their use of recycled paper in the near future.

Paper production – both recycled paper and virgin fiber paper – has an impact on the environment. However, using recovered paper has much lower impacts than virgin fiber, which should be the only comparison end users are making when considering paper choices – not pointing fingers at where an imagined limited supply of recovered paper is “best used.” If we want to avoid painful environmental consequences, we must act together so we can all succeed. Unfortunately, we have been going around in circles on this conversation for years – mainly, we talk past one another. I find that tiresome and unproductive, and consider the results of this study as an opportunity to now move forward together.

As Winston Churchill once said, “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

The paper industry as a whole has made some strides towards sustainability, but we’ve still got a long road to travel. We should have an honest conversation about the key metrics to determine how to make and use the most environmentally responsible paper. Collaborative efforts will achieve the best results.

National Geographic demonstrated a good model for collaboration and deserves recognition for committing to a process that was transparent, actionable, and inclusive. Green America, Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Resources Institute were stakeholders throughout this entire process. The participation of all the parties resulted in a study with a high level of integrity and value.

Now the question is whether or not others in the paper and magazine industry can employ the same model of collaboration in order to solve critical environmental consequences associated with paper production and use?

Please contact me if you would like to be part of this conversation:, 202-872-5308.

Categories: recycling

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  1. Recycling paper also reduce the requirement of water and oil. Recycling a tonne of paper saves about seven thousand gallons of water, and two barrels of oil. Recycled printer cartridges reduce the cost up to 50 percent compared to buying new cartridges.

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