Sustainability in the printing industry starts with
Six paper alternatives before recycling
Focus on sustainability in the printing industry. If we talk about the topic of sustainability, we primarily look at the topic of paper production. Besides the production process, the focus is on the materials used. Because that is where our carbon footprint starts.
Germany is a pioneer in paper consumption. Per capita, about 600 grams of paper are used per day. Yet domestic wood is not nearly enough. Germany imports the raw material from Brazil, Sweden and Portugal. This not only means long transport routes and thus high emissions, but also, and above all, an impact on the flora and fauna of other countries. To avoid this, the German market has been relying on recycled paper for some time. Recycled paper is currently the best-known alternative to virgin fibre. In production, the pulp manufacturing process is eliminated, saving up to 60 per cent energy and water on average.
A study by the Technical University of Darmstadt additionally confirms a reduction in emissions, chemical use, CO2 use and waste generation. With recycled paper, the wood fibre can be reused several times. The practical example uses corrugated cardboard to show a reuse of up to 25 times.
Recycling is good. But what if the primary product also has a positive environmental balance? This would make our recycled paper even more sustainable and reduce the footprint on the environmental balance sheet.
We have analysed six sustainable paper alternatives for you and evaluated them according to the criteria raw material, CO2 emissions, water consumption and chemical additives.
1. Paper made of grass
Grass paper is made from sun-dried grass, i.e. hay. Grass grows almost outside every door and is a rapidly renewable raw material that can be harvested several times a year. After being pressed into grass pellets, the raw material is processed into a resource-saving paper. In the production process, the sustainable product saves 99 percent water and 97 percent energy compared to paper production from wood. In total, up to 25 percent less CO2 is produced during the manufacturing process.
There are many possible applications for this new kind of natural paper. As printing paper, labels and packaging material, it can even be used in the food and cosmetics sectors, as it meets the necessary certifications. It does not contain any allergens that need to be labelled. Grass paper can be completely recycled.
2. Paper made from apple fibres
The paper made from apple fibres was launched on the market in Bolzano in beautiful South Tyrol back in 2007. An engineer was looking for a method to utilise the apple residues from juice production. He developed a process to turn the apple pomace, dried and ground, into paper together with FCS-certified cellulose. No chemical bleaching is used in the production process and the use of cellulose is minimised as far as possible. The uncoated paper has a special feel and is ideal for producing high-quality prints and packaging.
Apple paper is in no way inferior to conventional recycled paper. It is just as durable and can be printed and processed just as well. Apple paper does not smell or taste of apples. Like most sustainable paper production, the paper alternative does not undergo chemical processing to become coated paper and is unbleached. Therefore it has a slightly creamy hue. However, apple paper is not 100% wood-free. It only becomes a high-quality printing material with a mixture of cellulose. Nevertheless, it is resource-friendly because it reduces the consumption of recycled material to a large extent. Because even this raw material is not infinite.
3. Paper from bamboo
Bamboo is one of the fastest growing woods on earth. A giant bamboo stalk can grow up to 70 cm a day. The plant absorbs an enormous amount of CO2 and thus has a very positive environmental balance. For paper production from bamboo, the fibres are processed with sugar cane bagasse. The bagasse is a cellulose-containing waste from sugar production. Similar to apple paper, bamboo paper uses residues from the food industry, which would otherwise have to be destroyed in a costly and emission-intensive process.
Unlike trees, bamboo continues to grow after it is “harvested”. This means that no “dead tissue” is produced, which later releases CO2 into the environment. The paper already has a high degree of whiteness due to the raw material. Its colouring is slightly greenish and bluish. The use of chemical agents for surface treatment can be greatly reduced in the production of paper from bamboo due to its natural properties. Bamboo fibres are very durable and therefore ideally suited for paper production. After its use, bamboo paper can be disposed of in the recycling bin and returned to the recycling process. The environmental balance of this paper is very positive, even though high amounts of water are needed in its production.
4. Paper made from limestone
The company Rockpaper has invented a way to process limestone into a paper-like fabric, the Rockpaper of the same name. Paper-like because it has more of the feel of a plastic, yet can be written on and printed like paper. In the production process, the company can completely dispense with the raw materials wood and water. The paper is treated neither with chemical bleaching agents nor with acid and thus does not contaminate our groundwater. When the material is burnt, no toxic gases are released into the atmosphere. Rockpaper is composed of up to 80% stone meal and a small amount of non-toxic polyethylene.
In production, the company relies on the “Cradle to Cradle” concept and thus does not produce any waste products or recycles them for new productions. Compared to one tonne of conventional paper, 5,700 kilowatt hours are saved during production. In addition to the positive environmental balance, the company describes its product with further positive characteristics. The paper is said to be waterproof and very hard-wearing as well as tear-resistant. The texture absorbs less printing ink, so there is also a savings potential here. Rockpaper is suitable for use in screen, offset and digital printing.
5. Paper from hemp fibres
First of all, we have to look at the blending ratio when it comes to paper made from hemp fibres. In this article, we will only talk about paper made from 100% hemp fibres. The hemp papers known so far are made from a mixture of hemp fibres and recycled cellulose. It was not until 2021 that a company from Bavaria succeeded in producing a paper made of 100 percent hemp fibres. The paper is very durable, has a positive environmental balance and has a particularly pleasant feel. Hemp paper, which consists entirely of renewable raw materials, is made from a mixture of pressed hemp pulp mixed with chalk, potato starch and water.
Hemp is a rapidly renewable raw material that can be easily cultivated and harvested. The production of hemp paper does not save much energy and water compared to conventional virgin fibre paper. On the other hand, hemp paper can be recycled more often and does not require dyes or bleaching. Hemp paper is particularly tear-resistant and hard-wearing. It is also naturally waterproof. The paper is suitable for all printing processes and therefore offers high flexibility for the processing company.
6. Paper from the silphia fibre
Silphia fibre is a product that is produced as a waste product in bioenergy production. Instead of burning the residue or storing it in an emission-rich way, it is fed into a new production pathway. The fibre serves as a substitute product for cellulose. However, only about 35 percent cellulose can be saved. In paper production, about 35 percent of the virgin fibre or recycled material is replaced by the silphia fibre. As a useful plant, the silphia has similar properties to the useful hemp. It can be used for up to 10 years and requires very little pesticide. The long flowering period of the silphia is ideal for the local bee population. Silphia paper can be recycled like conventional paper. In the printing sector, it is mainly used for corrugated board products and packaging material.
So the trend is increasingly towards supplementing recycled paper with rapidly renewable raw materials. In this way, we prevent the need to buy additional recycled material from abroad. Customers who do not want to use recycled paper or one of the alternatives still have the option of using material from sustainable forestry. The FSC and PEFC labels continue to be regarded as sustainable products that can be returned to the production cycle. When it comes to sustainability and the printing industry, the first important question is: “What is the most sustainable option I have to choose from at the moment?”. Adhering to this also reduces our footprint on the environmental balance sheet.
Do you know of other paper types made from sustainable and rapidly renewable raw materials? Then please feel free to contact us.
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