Printers looking for environmental accreditation are basically on their own. There is no one-size fits all, industry-specific, environmental management system (EMS). Printers who want to have their green production practices recognised can do no better than sign up to the International Standard Organisation (ISO 14000) environmental certification. This is a broad brush set of voluntary standards, applied across all industries and sometimes attracting vociferous criticism for its lack of enforcement or identifiable environmental benefit. It is, however, the only game in town and provides a useful differentiation for a printing company concerned about its 'green' credentials.

More specifically, printing companies are turning towards gaining recognition of their paper handling processes in order to be able to claim Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) accreditation. This is part of a process to assure consumers that the paper they are using has not been sourced from rainforests or old growth forests. Its aim is to verify the origin of the pulp and the sustainability of the forests that provide the timber fibres that went into the paper.

Tracking the origin of pulp is known as establishing a chain of custody, wherein every link of the production from forest to paper merchant to printer is verifiable and accountable. The FSC is the promoter of the best-known chain of custody; an international organisation founded in the USA that certifies forests that are harvested in a sustainable manner and tracks the subsequent path of the timber-based products to the consumers. Its fastest growing area of activity is in publishing, paper and printing certification.

FSC paper first became available in Australia and New Zealand in 2006. As a brand and logo it has captured the market's attention. FSC identifies with the public's primary concern for the forests. It is not an environmental standard for the printing industry as such, instead employing 'an agreed set of standards' concerned only with ongoing identification of the timber products. Part of the criticism levelled against FSC is that it plays no role in regulating the environmental impacts of pulp and paper manufacturing, or printing.

Competing green schemes
Many people in the paper industry are critical of the unquestioning acceptance of the FSC logo as a benchmark against which the printing industry should be measured. The relatively recent (1995) FSC has so far only certified a small percentage of the world's commercially managed forests. The fear is that the popularity of the FSC logo will have the effect of denigrating the other forest certification scheme, the European-based Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) to the detriment of the industry's public profile.

The PEFC is the larger of the two schemes and is based on national forest certification run by, usually, European national schemes. It is an umbrella organisation setting the minimum acceptable standards. The scheme has its origins in regulating the multitude of smaller privately-owned forests in Europe. It is often criticised as not being sufficiently independent of the sectional interests of its membership. It endorses 35 different schemes of varying environmental strictness and requires third-party audits.

The value of the PEFC certification, like FSC, is that it gives the paper purchaser reassurance that the fibre is of known origin, from forests that are accountable to an environmental standard. One of the main differences between the PEFC and FSC is that while the latter has a single global set of standards for forest certification, the former does not; in fact members need not have a certification programme in place at all, simply a standard-setting programme.

The Australian Forestry Standard is currently being re-evaluated by the PEFC for renewal of its membership in 2008. The AFS has 13 major forest managers certified, accounting for over 9 million hectares of native forests and plantations on both public and private tenures. It provides chain of custody and has been developed utilising the formal Australian Standards process and has been designed to suit Australian forests, legal systems and community expectations.

This year, Australian Paper expanded its AFS certification to include pulp sourced from New South Wales and Victoria, in addition to its Tasmanian sources. This allows Australian Paper to use the PEFC logo on its papers.

From pulp to paper
However there is more to environmental responsibility than identification of the origin of pulp. The furore over the Gunns' pulp mill for Tasmania has focused, to a great extent, on the source of its timber, but for many environmentalists the knock-on impact of its operations are even more important. Regardless of the source of pulp, the use of chlorine and other toxins for bleaching in the manufacture of paper is widely seen as the industry's worst environmental impact.

Toxic by-products such as dioxins are inevitable when using chlorine gas (elemental chlorine) to bleach paper. Other forms of bleaching are available, some using chlorine derivatives, others using no chlorine at all, but all present environmental challenges. Paper that is produced without recourse to chlorine is labelled TFC (totally chlorine free) or if produced with minimal use of chlorine ECF (elemental chlorine free). Ironically, recycled paper, the goal of sustainability, cannot be labelled TFC because of uncertainty as to the process of the original fibres.

All Australian Paper mills in Australia operate to ISO14001. Its Shoalhaven and Maryvale mills are also accredited with FSC chain of custody and the company claims it is the largest user of FSC fibres in the country. Its Wesley Vale mill in Tasmania produces TFC paper.

There is another level of environmental recognition for paper manufacture; EMAS (eco management audit scheme). This originally European-based system is used to recognise those companies not content with the basic ISO 14001 level of environmental response but who go further, elevating their production practices to an even more refined level of environmental compliance. Arguably EMAS provides the paper and printing industry with its best 'green' credentials. However it is now coming under increasing scrutiny, with critics complaining that along with the ISO-based environmental management system, it embodies no enforcement of standards and can produce no evidence of environmental improvement when it is operative.

In the best of all possible worlds the forest management schemes, FSC and PEFC, would expand their auditing to take into account the environmental practices of the participants - pulp and paper mills, paper merchants and printers - in the chain of custody, as opposed to simply mandating that they account for the fibre. EMAS would set some enforceable standards that would include a fibre of known origin requirement in the ISO accreditation instead of turning a blind eye to illegally sourced pulp.

And then the two might want to come together to establish a recognised branding that would give consumers, both corporate and individual, some simple assurance that the paper they are purchasing is made from fibre taken from a well-managed forest and manufactured without recourse to polluting chemicals. Then we can all be assured that our consumption of printing is not damaging to the environment of the planet.