When shopping for paper, you’ve probably noticed two acronyms, both of which are pushed as selling points: PCF and ECF. PCF stands for “processed chlorine free” while ECF stands for “elemental chlorine free.” So, what exactly is the difference between these two terms, and why is it important for your paper to be chlorine free? Read on to find out.
Chlorine + Wood: A Bad Combination
Up until the late 1990s, mills that produced virgin chemical pulp (i.e. non-recycled paper pulp) used elemental chlorine when creating pulp for printing and writing papers. Elemental chlorine is chlorine gas, which is used to bleach the pulp (after all, trees are brown, not white, like paper). The problem with chlorine is that, when combined with lignins (cellular glue in wood), it produces furans and highly carcinogenic dioxin. These harmful substances end up in the wastewater from the mill, which is released into nearby rivers and lakes. Dioxins, like mercury, bioaccumulate up the food chain.
This is why the EPA placed more stringent requirements on paper mills, which effectively phased out the use of chlorine gas (elemental chlorine). Mills now use chlorine dioxide, which produces significantly fewer dioxins, but doesn’t eliminate them completely.
Given the above, calling a paper product elemental chlorine-free (ECF) isn’t much of a selling point—in most cases, it’s the minimum the law requires.
That being said, there are certain ECF bleaching methods that are better than others. Paper pulp mills that use oxygen delignification or other interim steps using non-chlorine beaches end up using less chlorine dioxide.
Processed Chlorine Free (PCF) Paper
Paper that is processed chlorine-free (PCF) uses ozone, oxygen and/or peroxide to bleach the paper. This method uses no chlorine, thus significantly reducing the amount of harmful waste produced by the process. Many recycling mills that produce tissue paper and printing and writing paper products use PCF bleaching, though not all of them do. There are also some products, such as packaging materials and other products that don’t need to be white, that are not bleached at all.
Part of what allows recycling plants to use processed chlorine-free paper is the fact that much of the recycled fiber has already been bleached. As such, recycled paper requires far less bleaching than virgin paper.
Currently, there are no virgin paper pulp mills in the U.S. that are completely chlorine free.
Making Greener Choices with Your Paper
When placing your next order for white paper, be sure to look for 100% recycled paper that is PCF. If you have to settle for paper that is processed ECF, see if you can ask the supplier for more information about the bleaching process and how they are reducing the release of carcinogenic dioxins and furans into the environment.
And, of course, you can do your part by recycling your own office paper. By making recycled fiber more readily available, you are contributing to the industry’s ability to processed paper chlorine free.