Guest Column: Looking to Make Your Magazines ‘Greener’?
I started trying some years ago to make the magazines on which I work more environmentally friendly, but there was a big problem: me. It took me a long time to realize that much of what I believed regarding the environmental impact of magazine publishing was misguided or just plain wrong.
Rather than subjecting you to another let's-all-go-"green" pep talk, I compiled the following quiz to help you recognize gaps in your knowledge and to provide you with useful information that can help you make more informed decisions in your efforts to go "green."
Q: Which of the following constitutes the largest portion of the typical American magazine's carbon footprint?
b) Distributing the magazine, including freight and postal services
c) Paper manufacturing
d) Cutting the trees to produce the paper
e) The hot air generated by loquacious writers and pompous editors
A: (c), paper manufacturing. A study commissioned by Time Inc. found that 77 percent of one magazine's carbon footprint and 61 percent of another's occurred in the manufacturing of pulp and paper. Subsequent studies by others have reached similar conclusions. Making paper is an energy-intensive process, with some mills generating more than a ton of carbon dioxide and equivalents for every ton of paper they produce.
Q: Which has a lower carbon footprint?
a) Paper made nearby at a mill with a high carbon footprint, or
b) Paper shipped halfway across the continent from a low-carbon mill
A: While generalizations are always dangerous (how's that for a generalization?), the answer is almost always (b). Transport of paper to printing plants is a tiny portion of the typical magazine's carbon footprint, while paper manufacturing usually accounts for the majority. The variation in carbon footprint from one mill to another is much greater than the total footprint of the freight. The Time Inc. study mentioned earlier puts transport to the printer at about 1 percent to 2 percent of the footprint.
Q: Is it easy to compare the carbon footprints of two competing paper mills?
A: Not at all. For example, if you include the carbon footprint of electricity used by mills, you will penalize those that are located in areas where the utilities happen to rely on coal. But if you don't, you will fail to recognize those that generate green power on-site through hydroelectric dams or other means.
Rather than looking for a single number from a paper supplier, you should discuss what comprises that footprint, what the mill is doing to reduce its environmental impact and what you, as a customer, can do to help.
Q: When you buy paper that has virgin content, you should favor suppliers who promise to plant one tree for every one they harvest, right?
A: Wrong. When you hear that claim, ask this question: Why do you need to plant trees in a forest? After all, it didn't take human intervention to start the forest or to replant trees that have died there over the millennia. The answer is that timber operations often plant trees when they want to control what species grow rather than taking the pot luck of mixed species that occurs in a natural forest after selective harvesting. That often means clear cutting, then spraying herbicides to keep down the vines for a few years until the seedlings are big enough.
Q: Does all sustainably harvested fiber have a certification from an organization like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)?
A: No. There is plenty of sustainable forestry that is not certified. That's especially true in places like Maine and Finland, where much of the forest is in the hands of small land- owners because the FSC and SFI guidelines are more suited to large corporate and government landowners. There also has been criticism of the forestry practices of some certified logging operations, though it's hard to separate fact from fiction because the certification organizations seem to put more resources into fighting each other than in promoting sustainable forestry. Still, using paper with certified fiber is the best way to ensure it comes from sustainable forestry.
Q: Are printers and paper mills that have chain-of-custody (CoC) certification more environmentally friendly than those that don't?
A: Not necessarily. CoC certification has nothing to do with an organization's environmental practices, just its ability to track which fiber or paper was used on a particular job. Only certification of specific paper—not of a mill or printing plant—matters.
Q: Does delivering electronic versus printed content save trees and help the environment?
A: Not necessarily. Data centers and electronic gadgets are huge consumers of electricity. While paper mills often rely heavily on renewable resources for their power, conventional electricity typically comes from coal or petroleum. That's why I refer to digital content as "Dead Dinosaur Editions" (as opposed to ink-on-paper, or "Dead Tree Editions").
The mountaintop-removal method of coal mining and the processing of oil sands for petroleum are both significant sources of deforestation in North America. Computers and other electronic gear also contain a variety of toxic substances that are rarely recycled.
*Barely a year ago, an anonymous magazine-industry manager going by the name of "D. Eadward Tree" wandered into the blogosphere despite not knowing his RSS from a hole in the ground. Since then, his blog, Dead Tree Edition (http://deadtreeedition.blogspot.com), has provided a variety of helpful hints, original reporting and smart-aleck comments related to the production and distribution of ink-on-paper publications. The Vancouver Sun recently praised Dead Tree Edition for having "some of the most detailed and biting analyses" of the controversy regarding black-liquor subsidies of U.S. pulp mills.