Dear Umbra,

Our office is trying to develop an environmental paper procurement policy, and we were wondering which component is most critical — certification by the Forest Stewardship Council, or recycled content? If you could help us understand which is best to support, we would greatly appreciate it.

Dan S.
Denver, Colo.

Dearest Dan,

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We need to pause and celebrate: 15 years ago, was it even possible for this question to be written? Could an office worker casually toss off “environmental paper procurement policy” and know that it would be generally understood? And were there two eco-positive, decent paper choices to baffle us? I was still in diapers, of course, but I think not. To ice the cake, I think the answer is “both.”

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A new sheaf on life?

Paper with recycled content performs multiple environmental purposes. To begin with, the recycling process takes waste paper — both from paper processing (pre-consumer) and from recycling bins (post-consumer) — and diverts it from the general waste stream. Instead of getting dumped in landfills or incinerators (hello, pollution!) it gets transformed into new products. Recycled paper eases the pressure on forests and related ecosystems. Paper made even in part from reclaimed pulp uses less total energy than virgin (unused) paper, and generates fewer air and water pollutants [PDF].

You knew all that, of course, but I think it’s helpful to spell it out again, because looking at the benefits helps us see the forest for the, um, trees. (OK, I had to say it. I had to. Even if it doesn’t quite make sense.) Recycled content paper is not only beneficial to those trees, but it also helps reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions created when paper decays in landfills. One drawback to recycled paper, however, is the lack of oversight on the system. I’m not saying there’s cheating — I’m just suggesting I could print out the recycled logo and put it on my car and no one would write me a ticket.

The Forest Stewardship Council, for its part, is a respected independent NGO that sets standards and carries out certifications to assure that forests and forest products are managed responsibly. The FSC certification criteria include human rights considerations, habitat protections, and prohibitions on the use of dangerous chemicals, among many other points. The FSC is a lovely outcome of the environmental movement, and there are a lot of FSC-certified products on the market, from chairs to paper. But even if paper comes from a sustainably-managed forest — and even if a certified “chain of custody” guarantees good works all along the way — making that paper still involves using new trees, lots of energy, and more pollution than we’d like.

Unless … the paper is both FSC-certified and recycled. Yes, we can get the best of both worlds. The FSC has three labels: 100 percent, recycled, and mixed sources. The 100 percent label indicates that all involved forests are FSC-certified (handy when buying lumber and lumber products). The mixed label indicates a blend of wood fibers from recycled material, FSC-certified forests, and “controlled sources” [PDF], involving forests with certain less stringent guidelines than the FSC-certified variety.

I’ll go out on a (sorry) limb here and suggest FSC recycled paper as your best bet. At least 85 percent of the wood in this paper is post-consumer and at most 15 percent is pre-consumer. Just as in cholesterol tests, one number should be high and the other should be low; the FSC has them in the right proportions. This kind of paper is widely available in stores, and one can search the FSC website for products, too.

As I was looking around on your behalf, meanwhile, I found a few interesting resources that might be helpful for green ream seekers such as yourself. The Environmental Defense Fund and friends ran a Paper Task Force a few years back and one result was a “paper calculator” that shows the comparative impact of various levels of recycled content — I thought it might be useful in procurement meetings. The Green Guide offers a nice wrap-up on paper issues, including non-tree paper (made from hemp, cotton, kenaf, and other plants) and recommended eco-brands, and so does the Ethical Consumer.

As you weigh these matters, I will further celebrate the evolution of our environmental situation by assuming we all know the basic first step in paper use improvement, and hardly mention what that aforesaid first step might be.