September and October 2006



Guest Columnist


By Sheldon Zakreski

Save a tree, buy recycled paper' is a common rallying cry these days, but what would happen if only fiber from recycled paper was used to make paper?

Without fresh fiber entering the fiber supply - derived directly from trees or indirectly from lumber, plywood, and paper processing operations - North America's paper supply would run out in less than a year.

Still, many paper buyers and sellers are having - and will continue to have - discussions about the “appropriate” amount of recycled content in certain types of paper. While questions about recycled content percentages and other environmental paper issues are growing more complex, the need for direct and clear answers remains the same.

The challenge facing buyers is how to:

1. Develop a better understanding of the tradeoffs involved; and 2. Communicate more effectively with suppliers on environmental issues.

This is where Metafore enters the picture. As an enterprising nonprofit organization, Metafore works with companies to provide them with:

Knowledge to look beyond a single issue (such as recycled content) and examine the different environmental and social impacts associated with the paper they buy.
Connections to hear the range of perspectives from loggers to suppliers to environmental groups to consumers on these issues.

Tools to make decisions while taking multiple issues and perspectives into account.

Metafore collaborated with the Forest Products Association of Canada, producers from that association, and North American pulp and paper buyers, to research and provide an overview of the different aspects of wood fiber as a key input for making paper. This Fiber Cycle project is an example of how to move discussions among buyers and suppliers beyond a single issue, such as recycled content or bleaching processes.

The Fiber Cycle project addresses how fiber is sourced, transformed, used, disposed of, recovered (where used fiber comes from,) and recycled (how used fiber is made into a new product.)

So what did we find out about how the fiber cycle operates in Canada and the United States?

Fresh fiber is vital to the life of the cycle. Without it, we could no longer continue to produce and use paper. Different blends of fiber are needed for different types of paper to meet key performance characteristics, such as strength, absorbency and brightness. There is clear evidence that more companies want to know about the sources of the fresh fiber used in the paper they buy. This can be found in the growing market recognition of third party certified sources.

More information on certification can be found at the Forest Certification Resource Center (

Using recovered fiber adds to the efficiency of the cycle. This is a billion dollar resource that is in demand not only in North America, but all over the world. The fact that approximately 37 million tons of reusable fiber in Canada and the United States are thrown away each year suggests that there is a huge opportunity to find ways to stimulate further paper recovery.

Technology influences the structure of the cycle. If you think back 30 years ago, little recycled fiber was used, and mill byproducts were usually burned for energy, or disposed of. Currently, recovered fiber and mill byproducts are responsible for 30 percent and 25 percent, respectively, of the fiber used for making paper. The make-up of the fiber cycle will continue to shift as technological advances improve our ability to utilize fiber from trees, mill byproducts, and recovered paper to create new paper products.

As a result, there is a growing appreciation of how using both fresh fiber and recovered fiber can be an environmentally responsible approach to making and using paper.

This comprehensive approach allows buyers, and others along the supply chain, to understand the essential role of fresh fiber, efficient use through technology, and the continuing need for recovery.

For more information about the Fiber Cycle project, visit

Sheldon Zakreski is an analyst for Metafore. Founded in 1997, Metafore is a Portland, Oregon-based, nonprofit organization that works with businesses to align their practices with environmental and social results.


This page was last updated on Sunday, January 28, 2007