Behind the Ratings: Paper

This week, GoodGuide launched ratings for household and office paper products. Grounded in research conducted by our science team, the paper ratings can be used to select the best products from toilet paper to notebooks. Making paper comes with a massive environmental impact: the release of hazardous chlorinated compounds, high water use, added burden to the solid waste stream, large energy demands, greenhouse gas emissions, and damage to arboreal and aquatic habitats. Here are the factors we used to characterize these effects so that you can identify and purchase better paper:

1. Amount of recycled content. Our team found that the recycled content of paper is the most important attribute to consider when buying paper. Paper products can be made from a combination of virgin fibers, recycled fibers (either pre-consumer or post-consumer), and alternative fibers (tree-free fibers, ideally derived from agricultural waste). Papers using a higher concentration of post-consumer recycled fibers or alternative fibers are better for the environment than pre-consumer fibers, and much, MUCH better for the environment than virgin fibers. GoodGuide’s paper ratings utilize a specially designed index to evaluate the breakdown of paper fibers, ultimately assigning higher scores to products with higher percentages of the lower-impact fibers.

Example: Seventh Generation Paper Towels, 100% Recycled contains 20% pre-consumer recycled fibers and 80% post-consumer recycled fibers.

2. Certifications. Since paper manufacturing is a complicated process, certification systems have been developed to help consumers identify products that are manufactured with an eye towards the environment. The primary certifications and designations are the Forest Stewardship Council, Green Seal, EcoLogo, Chlorine Free Products Association, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Ancient Forest Friendly, and Green-e. Since these certifications can be used to help you pick better products, GoodGuide has thoroughly evaluated and applied them accordingly to our paper ratings.

Example: Seventh Generation Paper Towels, 100% Recycled bears the EcoLogo certification.

3. Bleaching process. The final product-level factor that should impact your paper decision is how the product was bleached. Fibers are typically light brown in color, especially after the initial stages of paper manufacturing. Bleaching paper does exactly what it sounds like it would – makes it bright white. However, when it comes to paper, browner is greener! Papers processed chlorine free (PCF), totally chlorine free (TCF), or unbleached are better options than papers processed using elemental chlorine free (ECF) bleaching processes.

Example: Seventh Generation Paper Towels, 100% Recycled is processed without chlorine.

There are a few other points to note about our paper ratings. First, the environmental rating is a composite of the product rating (75%) and the company rating (25%). Second, you can always get specifics of any product on the product page (under the “About this product” heading). If you’re still craving more detail, visit our paper methodology page for more of the nitty-gritty details on how we rate paper.

I’d like to leave you with one final, but very important, tidbit: One factor we do not account for in our ratings is the decision to use a paper product versus non-paper alternatives. These ratings are intended to supplement your efforts to reduce paper consumption, not encourage use of more paper products. Remember that the best way to minimize the environmental impact of producing paper is to avoid using paper altogether and use reusable materials whenever possible.

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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One Response to Behind the Ratings: Paper

  1. Kyung says:

    So glad you are rating these products! However, I noticed you are missing the Trader Joe’s paper products, which I frequently pick up since I am there so often. Just wondering how they compare to the other choices….

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