The Alkaline Paper Advocate

Volume 05, Number 3
Jul 1992

The Chlorine-Free Bleaching Issue: An Essay

by Ellen McCrady

The public demand for paper made without chlorine, even without chlorine compounds, is interesting because of the irrational element in it. Originally, the idea of eliminating chlorine was a reaction to the news that kraft mills that bleached with chlorine gas were generating dioxins and contaminating rivers. Then it turned into a crusade, against not only chlorine gas but against chlorine dioxide and sodium hypochlorite, which are also used in bleaching but which generate hardly any dioxin or other toxin. Puzzle No. 1: Why has there been no outcry against the use of sodium hypochlorite as a swimming pool disinfectant and household bleach, or as a germicide in municipal water supplies? All of these uses contaminate the water that flows back into the river.

The demand for chlorine-free pulp is especially strong in Europe, where environmentalism is reportedly stronger than here. The industry has responded by inventing new ways to bleach pulp, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new equipment to put it into use. Now there are books and symposia on chlorine-free bleaching. Some mills are giving up not only chlorine gas, but all chlorine compounds, to woo the market. This has happened all over the world, just since 1985. Puzzle No. 2: Why is the public not interested in result (the actual amount of dioxin or chlorinated organics now produced, and the resulting environmental contamination or effect on humans) any more? Suppose someone could offer incontrovertible proof, after a 25-year research project by a hypothetical consortium of trustworthy agencies, that the environment has not been affected and no one had been made ill by the use of chlorine compounds in pulp bleaching. Would the public change its position? I doubt it, because facts have very little to do with it once the original enthusiasm has been aroused.

It is not fair of me to lump all environmentalists together, because some of them do good science and advocate sound policies (e.g., Robert Repetto, whose article on "Accounting for Environmental Assets" appears in the June Scientific American). There are some responsible environmental organizations too. But the popular movement is another matter. I think it is finally time for me to read the classic work, Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which was written two or three hundred years ago. It may shed some light on current events. One of the things it may help explain is the disturbing tendency of Greenpeace representatives to make up their own facts. This tendency is disturbing because it polarizes controversy by weakening the basis for persuasion and negotiation, thus compromising their own goals and interfering with progress. It is true that persuasion and negotiation are not always possible, and confrontation may be necessary, but even in a confrontational situation, care should be taken to justify action on a rational and factual basis. Parallels could be drawn between environmental disputes and those in the legal, domestic, labor and political realms. Lawsuits and violence are usually more expensive and destructive than negotiation and diplomacy.

In the May Pulp & Paper, an officer of Eka Nobel corrected two of the numerous errors Mark Floegel of Greenpeace had made in an earlier guest commentary. One was the claim that organochlorine compounds are produced in U.S. commercial sodium chlorate facilities (they are not, because the kind of anode that is used in this country does not produce them) and the other was the statement that hydrogen peroxide breaks down into hydrogen and water (i.e., H202 -> H20 + H2), which is obviously impossible. In the November 1991 NPTA Management News, Virgil Horton has a similar but longer argument against a similar hyperactivist position: he rebuts Conservatree's July 1991 press release criticizing the American Paper Institute's goal of achieving 40% paper recovery for recycling by 1995. Horton's rebuttal is rational and conciliatory. Nevertheless, the response to it by Alan Davis, president of Conservatree, claims it "resorts to personal attacks and the same old litany of statistics." If Davis wanted to win Horton and the API over to his point of view, he would not be so offensive and hostile when he addressed them in a public forum, and he would back up his claims with good arguments and facts. One can only conclude that he prefers to keep them as enemies, for reasons he knows best.

Although paper industry representatives are sometimes just as confrontational and just as poorly oriented to confirmable facts as Greenpeace reps, some paper companies do their best to preserve the environment and adopt responsible policies. These companies have often earned some kind of environmental certification, like the Ecolabel for individual products; or met a standard of environmental or management excellence like the ISO 9000 series of standards; or won a prize for excellence like the Malcolm Baldrige Award. There is a close connection between environmental responsibility and other kinds of excellence. Consumers who want to promote good practices can learn about these kinds of programs and awards, find out which companies have qualified, and patronize them.

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