By Donella Meadows
–March 17, 1988–
I like to collect stories of planet-conscious businesses, companies that run their affairs in ways that sustain the earth’s resources. There are more such stories than you might think, and they are more than mere curiosities. They are glimpses into the future. They show that there are still products and profits to be made after we stop our slow, steady embezzlement of the planet’s riches and start making an honest living.
The latest story I’ve run across is of the Earth Care Paper Company.
Six year ago in Lansing, Michigan, Carol and John Magee tried to buy recycled paper for the newsletter of John’s nature center. They couldn’t find any. They found paper companies that used recycled fibers, but the paper was sold only in bulk, without even being labeled as recycled. There was no market for recycled paper.
John and Carol saw a supply and a demand that hadn’t found each other. So they started Earth Care Paper.
They bought a bulk shipment of high-quality recycled paper and sent it to converters — a company that made envelopes, a company that cut and packaged reams. They hired artists to design cards, stationery, and gift wrap and sent the designs and the recycled paper off to printers. Then they put out the first Earth Care Paper catalog. Now, six years later, 30,000 catalogs go out each year.
Scattered among the stationery, greeting cards, and copying and computer papers in the catalog are interesting nuggets of information about paper. For example:
The average American uses 580 pounds of paper per year, 26% of which is recycled. The average Japanese uses 326 pounds of paper, 45% of which is recycled. The average Nigerian uses 7 pounds. None of it is recycled.
The primary use of paper in the U.S. is not junk mail, believe it or not, but product packaging. Packaging accounts for half our national paper use. It adds 10% to the cost of a bag of groceries and accounts for one-third of the volume of garbage filling up our landfills.
Increasingly paper is made from trees of tropical forests. These forests, unlike the temperate ones we’re used to harvesting, do not regenerate easily after logging — some do not regenerate at all. Worldwide about 95 acres of tropical forest disappear per minute; these forests contain at least 40% of the plant and animal species of the planet. Japan and the U.S. are the major importers of tropical wood products. The United States imports 800 million pounds of paper from Brazil each year.
Not the usual information you get from a catalog!
Earth Care Paper has doubled in size each year for five years. The Magees project a gross of $400,000 in 1988. The business now supports both of them and two other people full time. They recently moved the company to Madison, Wisconsin, to be closer to paper suppliers and to have more inventory space.
The Magees work closely with paper companies to be sure the recycled content of all their products is as high as possible. They have provided a market for the Glatfelter Company of Nina, Wisconsin, to produce Minimum Impact Paper, which is not de-inked or bleached in the recycling process. That reduces chemical pollution and results in the lowest-cost, lowest-waste high-quality paper available. Minimum Impact is a light beige color, popular among environmental organizations for stationery, newletters, brochures, envelopes. It is what the Magees were looking for when they founded their company.
Recycled paper is perceived as being inferior to virgin paper, but it’s not. According to the catalog, “because the fibers are more conditioned, recycled paper has greater flexibility, stands up better to humidity and temperature changes, has greater opacity, holds clay better, and is easier to feed on printing presses than non-recycled papers.”
Producing a ton of recycled paper results in 74% less air pollution, 35% less water pollution, and 58% less water consumption than producing a ton of virgin paper. It saves 17 trees and 10,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity. If the rate of paper recycling in the United States doubled to around that of Japan, the electricity saved would be the equivalent of forty 1100 Mw nuclear power plants.
Carol Magee says the main thing preventing more paper recycling is not the willingness of people to separate paper, not the technology or economics of recycling, but the simple fact of too little demand for recycled paper.
That demand is rising. Some states, such as New York, Maryland and New Jersey, faced with intractable garbage problems, now encourage their governments to purchase recycled paper. Maryland alone has purchased over 1 million reams of recycled bond paper since 1977.
Earth Care Paper sells to individuals, retail stores, nonprofit organizations, and businesses, but it is too small to handle customers the size of a government. To fill that need, another environmental entrepreneurship has appeared, a wholesaler of recycled papers, Conservatree Paper Company of San Francisco, which does $8 million worth of business a year.
But that’s another story.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988