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Sustainability reports

It is now standard practice for paper companies and industry associations to publish annual or biannual sustainability reports, often known as "environmental" reports in the past.

It takes some effort by staff, and costs money, to develop the information required and publish it in presentable form. To a harassed production managers or mill technical directors, collecting the information seems like one more paperwork burden, so they naturally question whether the reports are worth the effort. The answer is that there is no way to assess the value of these reports, any more than there is a mathematically sound way to assess the value of public relations expenditures or of product advertising budgets.

Considering the history of sustainability reporting in the industry, I think we can conclude that it is a necessary business expense, and that it is worth some effort to write the reports well.

About 25 years ago, customer pressures, initiated by environmental advocacy organizations, started to affect the marketing of paper industry products.

One of the most obvious effects was a call for totally chlorine free bleaching of pulp. At the time, many pulp mills used large amounts of chlorine, and the technical level of operation of many bleach plants was far below today's normal practice.

Management of most mills assumed that they were "non-polluting" if they complied with effluent and air pollution control regulations, although significant quantities of unregulated (and toxic) chlorine compounds were easily measured in pulp mill effluents. Dioxins attracted the most media attention, and became a tool used by the enviro groups in the courts to force the USEPA to review and tighten environmental regulations for the pulp and paper industry. Canada followed suit, although without litigation.

In the 1990s, the main customer push on pulp mills came from Germany, where paper mills often demanded the highest brightness pulp. Cynics noted that Germany had several operating sulphite pulp mills (which inherently do not generate dioxins in the waste-waters) but no kraft mills, since they had long been prohibited there, due to the well-known kraft mil stench. Whatever the reason, the situation made pulp and paper industry management realize how powerful the enviro groups had become.

While the US industry fought hard with the EPA over the development of new environmental regulations, European companies responded to the enviro groups with negotiation and some modifications to manufacturing practices, mostly related to reducing discharges of chlorinated compounds (generally measured as AOX). The European companies started publishing reports on the environmental performance of mills, initially focusing on discharges to air and water, but later addressing energy efficiency, solid waste and other parameters. They reported actual discharges, energy consumption, etc., and in so doing filled a vacuum of information that had previously been filled by anti-industry activists. These companies also developed a dialogue with the environmental activists, and generally avoided the litigation that is all too common in the US.

The reports came to be known as "sustainability" reports. The objective was to demonstrate to potential customers, and those who influenced the customers, that the company was environmentally responsible, and was not guilty of the various sins of which the paper industry was accused.

Many early reports appeared to be written by lawyers and public relations staff, and contained little data. Many companies refused to release data on environmental discharges in terms of lbs or kg/ton product, on the basis that this would allow competitors to determine mill production rates, and that such data was confidential. Of course, comparing mill discharges on a "per ton" basis is the only realistic way to compare mills and companies performance, so this led to the activists assuming that the paper companies had something to hide. Sometimes they were correct. The whole secrecy approach was rather silly, since anyone could determine the principal production figures for a mill in any bar in town.

However today, most of the reports produced are excellent. The American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA) recently published an industry-wide summary, available on the Association web site. It is well written, and includes useful overview data and information on the industry.

The AF&PA report short-changes the industry in one sense, by showing that today's environmental discharges are around one quarter of those in 1975. (Considering BOD, TSS SO2 and TRS as the most widely used indicators.)

Having been heavily involved in measuring such discharges in the 1970s, I feel that the 1975 data presented by AF&PA is a rather poor underestimate of the realities at the time, so that the improvements achieved by the industry were actually much better than the published 75% reduction. This is important when trying to convince the public that the industry no longer deserves the poor reputation it earned many years ago. It will become even more important when a company decides to build a modern mill in the US or Canada to replace several obsolete neighboring mills that are shutting down.


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