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The magazine you hold in your hand contains no recycled paper. We were told we couldn’t afford it, which seems counterintuitive and wrong. And if the odds are right, you will put this limited edition in the trash.

More than nine billion of the 12 billion magazines published in the United States each year get incinerated or wind up in landfills. That’s bad because landfilling paper takes up valuable space, stops a useful resource from being recycled and releases methane into the air as the paper decomposes. (Methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.) And that’s just what happens when we throw away a magazine.

First, it has to be manufactured, and to make paper requires vast resources. Because 95 percent of the 2.2 million tons of magazine paper comes from virgin fibers, 35 million trees are cut down each year to meet the magazine industry’s demand.

At the mill, fibers are bleached with chlorine compounds, which, when mixed with wood cellulose, create dioxins, a highly toxic carcinogen. Paper is unmatched in the water consumption necessary for production. It takes 13 ounces of water to make one sheet of 8-1/2 x 11 paper. All of that water is polluted with dioxins and other chemical compounds. And the paper industry is the fourth leading greenhouse gas emitter in the manufacturing sector (behind petroleum, cement and chemical products).

Global paper demand is expected to increase 77 percent between 1995 and 2020. The digital revolution may be underway, but we are still addicted to paper. To offset the increased demand, it is critical to take pressure off of our natural resources by using paper with recycled content. Replacing one ton of virgin fiber with one ton of recovered fiber (fiber thrown away then collected to be made into another product) has the effect of reducing wood use by 100 percent, wastewater by 33 percent, air pollution by 28 percent and solid waste by 54 percent.

Since 1990, recovered paper collection has increased by 87 percent. That translates into 25 million more tons of paper being recycled and the reduction of “more than 97 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, comparable to the annual emissions of nearly 18 million cars,” said Maria Vickers, deputy director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Solid Waste, at the 131st Annual Paper Week.

Unfortunately, only 17 percent of magazines that reach a consumer is recovered. The low number is likely a carry-over from the Eighties and Nineties when municipalities heightened their recycling efforts but ignored magazines because they were not considered as valuable as newsprint. This established a general perception that magazine paper was not recyclable.

There is also the view among publishers that recycled paper is not affordable, which is part of the reason that only five percent of all magazines have recycled content, a startlingly low percentage. “Paper is the single biggest expense in producing a magazine,” said Vicki Bales, production manager at Chicago, which, at 165,000, has the largest city magazine circulation in the country. “We’d have to raise our ad rates [if we used recycled paper]. We really have to watch it.”

There have been, however, a number of developments within the industry and at individual magazines. ReMix, a consortium of magazine and paper companies established to promote magazine recycling, launched its New York campaign this year after successful pilot programs in four other cities. Initially begun in Boston and Prince George County, Md., the program saw an increase in recycling of 22.8 percent and 10.8 percent, respectively. It’s a start.

“What old magazine paper goes into is beside the point,” wrote David Refkin, director of sustainable development for Time Inc., in the company’s 2005 Sustainability Report. “The fact that it is recovered and goes into some kind of recycled product will take pressure off forests and help meet the world’s demand for more fiber. That is the point of ReMix.”

But what magazine paper is made of does matter.

“From a market perspective, publishers purchasing recycled content will be a market driver,” said Frank Locantore, director of the Magazine Paper Project for Co-op America. “[That] will demonstrate demand and increase pressure on industry to produce more recycled content.” Most mills in America were built to use virgin pulp in their manufacturing process. When they add recovered content to the mix, they often price the product at a premium.

Nickelodeon, Fast Company and Inc. are just a few of the many magazines that use 100 percent recycled paper imported from Germany, and here in America, Everyday with Rachael Ray, a food magazine published 10 times a year with a circulation of more than 1.3 million, buys its paper from a Myllykoski company mill located 12 miles outside of Chicago. The mill takes in 300-350 tons of recovered paper a day, uses no chlorine and manufactures a magazine grade paper using 85 percent recovered material with no premium relative to virgin paper.

Change is difficult, as demonstrated by Vanity Fair’s failed attempt to print its April “green” issue with 10 percent recycled content, but it needs to happen.

“The way to be most responsible is to have principles and guidelines that are public and shared with stakeholders on how you want to improve your sustainability,” said Locantore. “You can only make gradual improvements. Have a policy that outlines objectives with the idea that it will get better over time.”

Locantore has five pillars for supporting sustainable printing: use less paper by printing on a lighter-weight stock; maximize recycled content; use agricultural residues and alternative fibers when life-cycle analysis shows an environmental benefit; use certified fibers that come with Forest Stewardship Council labels to ensure the trees were cut in a sustainable manner; and make sure your mill uses clean production methods and no chlorine. Another crucial element Locantore emphasizes is to communicate long-term goals throughout the supply chain, and make sure suppliers are on your side.

“You can’t incorporate all five initially,” said Locantore. “But there should be a policy in place to improve the environmental characteristics.”

The beauty of a magazine does not have to come at an ugly environmental cost. The manufacturing process can even be remediative in time. Environmental stewardship is not just a good idea, it’s necessary, and action needs to be taken now. Nothing will change until buyers demand it.

You are the buyers.

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