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How Bleached Paper Impacts the Environment
The paper making process is a dirty business requiring large amounts of energy and the use of several hazardous chemicals. The most potentially harmful of these chemicals is chlorine, which is used to achieve the bright white color of most paper products. Chlorine gas is the most common (and most toxic) chemical used to bleach paper, but bleaching can also be achieved using chlorine derivatives such as chlorine dioxide or sodium hypochlorite. Hydrogen peroxide and oxygen can also whiten paper products, though they are not commonly used by conventional paper mills.
The use of chlorine during the paper making process produces dioxins. Dioxins are a group of hazardous chemical compounds that occur naturally and due to man-made activities. In many studies dioxins have been shown to be highly toxic to living things. Dioxins do not readily degrade into other compounds but persist in the environment for many years.
Dioxins accumulate in the fat cells of animals. Many studies have shown correlations between high workplace exposure to dioxins and increased risk of cancer. Other studies have shown the same result when animals were exposed to high levels of dioxins. Additional animal studies suggest that dioxin exposure can result in reproductive and developmental harm.
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Green Alternatives: Unbleached and Chlorine-Free Paper
Green consumers should always buy the paper product that contains the highest percentage of post-consumer recycled content they can find. Go one step further by also searching for unbleached or chlorine-free paper products. When you purchase paper that has not been treated with chlorine you can help shift the paper industry towards more environmentally-friendly practices.
Unbleached paper saves the environment from the addition of dioxins and other harmful chemicals. Many commonly used paper products do not need to be bright white. Look for unbleached paper napkins, paper towels, tissues, coffee filters, and toilet paper.
Paper can also be whitened by chlorine-free processes utilizing oxygen-based bleaches. Oxygen compounds are much easier on the environment. For example, when hydrogen peroxide is used to whiten paper its by-products are water and oxygen.
Eco-friendly brands like Seventh Generation, Earth First, and 365 from Whole Foods offer 100% recycled chlorine-free paper products. For more information on how to buy eco-friendly paper products, see this shopper's guide compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Green office paper, made from recycled material and chlorine-free, is available online from Green Earth Office Supply and GreenLine Paper Company.