JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1998 · VOLUME 19 · NUMBERS 1 & 2
E N V I R O N M E N T
FOUR YEARS AGO, the Clinton Administration considered promulgating an executive order which would have required the federal government to purchase totally chlorine-free (TCF) paper to satisfy a small portion of its paper needs. The proposal also required that, with certain exceptions, the federal government would purchase only recycled paper.
The goal of the executive order was to encourage the use of recycled paper to reduce pressure on landfills, and to decrease domestic reliance on chlorine-based paper bleaching processes that produce dioxin, one of the most toxic human-made substances. The order also sought to use the federal government's purchasing power to encourage industry to invest in recycling and chlorine-free paper production technologies.
FROM WOOD TO PAPER
ALTHOUGH WOOD IS THE PRIMARY current U.S. source of fiber for paper,
other fibers -- including industrial hemp and kenaf -- produce far more fiber
per acre and require fewer chemicals to transform the raw materials into paper.
The impact of logging on ecosystem and wildlife preservation, fishery viability
and tourism also militate against the use of wood.|
Nonetheless, wood it has been for paper and wood it will be for some time. Thus it is critically important to utilize as clean and environmentally friendly practices of wood-based paper production as possible.
Wood consists of cellulose, which is the fiber used to make paper, and lignin, which holds the wood together. Making paper involves three energy- and chemical-intensive processes to separate the usable cellulose from the glue-like lignin.
The first stage requires breaking the wood down into pulp by chemical, semi-chemical or mechanical means. The resulting pulp contains relatively large quantities of lignins and other impurities, including chemicals used in the initial pulping process. In the second stage, the pulp is washed to remove the lignins and chemicals. The pulp is rinsed through a series of screens at extremely high temperatures with hazardous gases and liquid effluent as waste byproducts. In the third stage, the pulp is washed again and bleached using one of several techniques: chlorine, chlorine dioxide (also misleadingly known as elemental chlorine-free) and totally chlorine-free or TCF.
The bleach cycle may be repeated several times, creating both hazardous air emissions and huge quantities of waste water. The waste water resulting from the chlorine-based bleaching procedures contains lignins as well as a host of hazardous chemicals, including dioxins. Even where the effluent is piped to a municipal waste treatment facility, dioxins, furans and organo-chlorines pass through unaffected and are deposited into surface waters where they begin their ascent up the food chain. Chlorine dioxide bleaching reduces the production of these toxic substances when compared to straight chlorine bleaching, but only TCF fully eliminates their formation by using oxygen or peroxide instead of chlorine-based chemicals.
The sole purpose of the bleaching and rebleaching processes is to whiten the paper. -- T.P.
Enter the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA). AF&PA adamantly opposed the executive order. In a clever strategy intended to divide environmentalists, AF&PA lobbyists maneuvered the executive order policy debate into a choice between TCF or recycled paper procurement, but not both. TCF soon fell by the wayside. AF&PA had succeeded in eliminating federal procurement of this environmentally preferable paper.
Today, TCF commands more than 25 percent of the pulp market in Europe, but only an infinitesimal share of the U.S. market.
Last year, the Clinton administration was presented with another opportunity to facilitate the transition to TCF paper -- and again the administration instead caved in to the demands of the AF&PA and other industry lobbyists. This time, the field of contest was the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) "Cluster Rule," a set of pulp and paper industry regulations covering both air and water pollution limits. This rule is extremely important because it is likely to set industry standards for the next decade or longer -- once a standard is established, it is highly unlikely that the industry will be asked to upgrade anytime in the near future.
During the rule-making process, EPA proposed two alternative regulatory options. It ultimately chose the dirtier, industry-preferred alternative. But industry lobbyists' real victory was in defining the terms of debate -- they succeeded in keeping TCF from ever being seriously considered.
EPA'S LIMITED OPTIONS
Many environmental groups' wholehearted support for TCF notwithstanding, the EPA did not even propose it as an alternative in the agency's final rulemaking. Instead, EPA proposed two chlorine-based technologies which will allow continued dioxin pollution, though at reduced levels. Option A, supported by AF&PA and the paper industry, required that the pulp-bleaching stage rely upon chlorine dioxide rather than elemental chlorine bleaching. Option B also favored chlorine dioxide as a bleaching agent but required oxygen delignification in the pulping process. Oxygen delignification is used just before the pulp enters the bleaching plant to reduce the amount of lignin that passes through to the bleach plant. This brightens the pulp and reduces the amount of bleaching required.
EPA justified its rejection of TCF on the grounds that there was insufficient experience with the technology and "and a lack of data for TCF bleaching of softwood to full market brightness." These assertions are, at best, questionable. To the extent that there is any validity to these claims, it is largely a reflection of the Clinton administration's failure to promote TCF with its executive order on paper purchasing -- a decision which practically froze the U.S. paper market in place. U.S. stagnation aside, TCF's 25 percent market share in Europe would appear to provide ample experience with TCF. In addition, a Louisiana-Pacific mill in Somoa, California which uses softwoods has been TCF since 1994.
The European and Louisiana-Pacific examples appear to demonstrate that TCF can satisfy market brightness standards (ignoring the issue of whether those standards should be compromised to protect the environment). Paper is judged on a brightness scale and full market brightness is considered to be more than 85 percent. But EPA admitted in the preamble to the final Cluster Rule that "several non-U.S. mills have reported the production of TCF softwood kraft pulp at full market brightness." And Louisiana-Pacific's mill in Somoa, California has achieved more than 85 percent brightness since 1994 using softwood pulp, with some bleaching cycles exceeding 88 percent brightness. Similarly, European TCF producer Sodra Cell achieved 88 percent brightness with softwood pulp in February 1994.
EPA did throw a bone to TCF proponents. The Cluster Rule adopted an incentives program whereby mills can agree to meet stricter standards, including TCF, and get additional compliance time and "public recognition" for exceeding baseline requirements. But to go TCF or not will remain "a corporate decision," says Wendy Smith of EPA's Office of Water. No corporation had committed to EPA's incentives program when the Cluster Rule was issued.
RECYCLING EXECUTIVE ORDER
THE AF&PA'S SUCCESSFUL 1993 gambit on Clinton's
executive order actually scored a double victory. First, the trade group
divided the environmental community over the choice of totally chlorine free
(TCF) or recycled paper, which resulted in TCF being dropped. Then, although
Clinton signed the executive order incorporating the buy recycled mandate, his
administration has failed to enforce it. Four years after the order went into
effect, the compliance rate is still embarrassingly low. For copier paper, for
example, the government's overall compliance was a measly 39 percent. This is
all the more galling because the General Services Administration, the central
purchasing agent for the government, has priced recycled paper at five cents
less per case since October 1996. Agencies have been paying a premium to
violate the order and buy virgin paper.|
Here is a sampling of individual agency compliance rates for purchases of recycled copier paper during fiscal year 1997. Percentages refer to the portion of total copier paper purchases that met the Buy Recycled order's requirements that all paper be recycled:
Federal Communications Commission: 0 percent
General Accounting Office: 2 percent
Department of Personnel Services: 2 percent
Federal Labor Relations Administration: 4 percent
Smithsonian Institute: 7 percent
Office of Personnel Management: 22 percent
Treasury Department: 23 percent
Even the Department of Interior, steward of public lands and an agency that one might think has a commitment to the environment, managed to buy recycled paper less than half of the time, registering a 42 percent rate of compliance.
Several agencies have demonstrated that buying recycled is as easy as it sounds. The Department of Education achieved 100 percent compliance and the Executive Office of the President was close behind at 99 percent.
Several agencies, including the Defense Department, now require that all paper orders to the GSA be filled with recycled paper regardless of what the procurement official requested. This has improved performance, but GSA recently announced that it would rescind the price preference for recycled paper. Because most of the mandatory replacement requests are only effective if the recycled paper is equal to or lower in price than virgin paper, compliance could plummet.
The simplest solution -- having GSA sell only recycled paper to federal agencies -- has thus far proved too bold a maneuver for the bureaucrats at GSA.
Prospects for GSA taking this simple and sensible step do not appear bright. Confronted with the government's poor record, Frank Pugliese, commissioner of GSA's Federal Supply Service, replied: "Executive orders are executive orders. Big deal." -- T.P.
With TCF off the table, environmental groups threw their unanimous support behind Option B. But the Clinton administration did not even give serious consideration to environmentalists' contentions, and in November the EPA adopted Option A as a federal regulation. EPA quickly went into spin control to shine the best light possible on its action, saying in its comments accompanying the rule that the rule would "virtually eliminate dioxin discharges into waterways." EPA failed to mention that many of the 100 bleach mills impacted by the Cluster Rule are already using chlorine dioxide bleaching and therefore will be completely unaffected by Option A.
In EPA's defense, Troy Swackhammer of the agency's Office of Water says that EPA's proposal of chlorine dioxide-oriented rules had already encouraged mills to move away from elemental chlorine bleaching. EPA is unable to show, however, that any mill reacted to the agency's proposed rules. And even if such a shift did occur, Swackhammer's contention begs the far more interesting question of whether there might be more than a single TCF mill in the United States if EPA had proposed or seriously considered a TCF rule.
Environmentalist criticisms were unfounded, EPA claimed in announcing the rule. Option A, it said, would "protect the health of millions of American families who live near pulp and paper mills," primarily by reducing dioxin levels in downstream fish. EPA concluded that the Cluster Rule was judged to have acceptable risks for daily fish consumption rates of 145 grams.
Although most people in the United States rarely eat fish caught downstream from a paper mill, EPA itself estimates that one million people in the United States live near pulp mills and depend on subsistence fishing. Many of these people, especially Native American, African American, Asian American and low-income populations, eat large amounts of fish. EPA's 1994 draft Dioxin Reassessment found that some low-income populations consume as much as 300 grams of fish per person each day and therefore are sure to be exposed to unsafe dioxin levels under the Cluster Rule.
Disputes over acceptable levels of dioxin in fish ignore a more disturbing and overriding reality: the U.S. population is at its limit for exposure to dioxin, according to EPA's draft 1994 Dioxin Reassessment. In other words, the general U.S. population has already met or exceeded the body burden humans are capable of absorbing without negative health impacts. Yet the Cluster Rule imposed a chlorine-based standard under which dioxins, furans and other organo-chlorines will still be allowed to be emitted into the environment. Furthermore, subsistence fishing families with their high fish consumption have likely exceeded the dioxin levels above which health effects occur.
Given the especially high freshwater fish consumption rates of Native Americans, the Cluster Rule "perpetuates the contamination of tribal food supplies and tribal people," says Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network. The rule is a "betrayal of the highest magnitude."
The acceptance of human health risks and inevitable disease and death is particularly disturbing, says Laurie Valeriano, of the Washington (state) Toxics Coalition, because "mills around the world produce pulp without producing deadly chlorinated poisons."
Even the EPA's cost analysis invites skepticism. EPA focused its cost assessment on up-front capital investment, rather than on operating costs. On an operational basis, a new TCF mill is actually less expensive than a traditional chlorine-based mill. And Option B's delignification requirement would have imposed minimal costs on consumers -- between zero and 0.2 cents per five hundred sheets of paper, according to Rick Hind, legislative director for the Greenpeace USA Toxics Campaign. Some of the largest U.S. paper purchasers advocated a tougher rule, Hind notes. "If cost was truly an issue, large paper users such as TIME Magazine, McDonald's, Kinko's and Ben & Jerry's would not have called for a stronger rule," he says.