Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Green paper supply not meeting demand

According to a report produced by conservation group Markets Initiative, Canadian magazines are clamouring for eco-friendly paper, but the mills simply aren't meeting that demand.

To supply what magazine, book and newspaper publishers want, mills would have to produce an additional 550,000 metric tons of "eco-paper." The group estimates that supplying that paper would result in contracts worth about $560 million.

"There's no reason Canada's troubled pulp and paper industry can't take inspiration from the auto sector and start reinventing by producing a greener product," Nicole Rycroft, the group's executive director, said in the report's announcement. (And thanks to D.B. Scott's Canadian Magazines blog for bringing it to my attention.)

One reason I find this report interesting is that I've been trying to source unbleached, recycled paper for my office (I work in publishing). This is something I was able to buy back in the early 1990s, but today it's almost impossible to find. It certainly is not available from big office supply companies like Staples (whenever I ask, they try to sell me acid-free paper). I haven't seen unbleached toilet paper on a store's shelves since about 1994. To the best of my knowledge, the mills have all moved away from producing truly environmentally friendly paper products. And those are products that can command premium prices at retail.

This all comes at a time when the pulp mill owners are moaning about the state of their industry. Apparently I am not alone in my willingness to pay a premium for a product that is less harmful to the environment, and not alone in my frustration that no one seems willing to acknowledge that there is a demand for better paper products. At least, no one in the Canadian paper industry.

Perhaps this is all a bit more poignant because I'm reading Corporate Wasteland: the landscape and memory of deindustrialization, in which Concordia University history professor Steven High walks us through the social impacts of plant closures, while photographer David W. Lewis provides stark visual cues about the landscapes in question.

The book includes a compelling discussion of Northern Ontario pulp and paper mill closures, situations in which multinationals closed the doors of a mill and walked away from a profitable operation. Those were mills that might have helped meet the growing demand for eco-friendly paper that exists today. Mills that could have helped Canada to be at the forefront of an emerging industry.

Instead, they closed the mills and, in some cases, tore them down rather than allow anyone else to keep them running. For a multinational paper company, it's better to have a closed mill than one reopened by a potential competitor. These closrues were tragic for many mill workers, sometimes devastating to the mill towns. And all the more sad for the opportunities lost because the mill owners couldn't see the new market that was on the horizon.

Markets Initiative suggests that, to be competitive, the Canadian industry needs to increase recycled paper capacity, invest in commercial-scale residue pulping, improve collaboration between producers, consumers and government on policy initiatives, and start planning based on a product's full cycle.

There are a lot of good ideas there. We'll see what the government does with the $170 million earmakred for technology, research and innovation in its budget. Will it rehabilitate the Canadian pulp and paper industry, or will the government just prop up the industry temporarily, effectively funneling money south of the border?

We'll see if the industry moves forward, if new life is breathed into mill towns, and if decent jobs are created for working people in the forest sector, jobs they can once again be proud of.


val said...

I have some knowledge in this area - let me know if you'd like to discuss.

Craig Saunders said...

Discussion is very much welcome.