I would think that the glossy paper used by most magazines

I would think that the glossy paper used by most magazines is bad for the environment, yet most publishers still use it, even the outdoors and environmental titles. What’s the scoop? Is paper made glossy by using chemicals that are not safe?

—Kellina Higgins, via e-mail

It’s no secret that glossy coatings on magazine covers make pictures really “pop” and attract the eye, thus helping publications compete for attention on ever more crowded newsstands. According to Jerry Stranahan of Lane Press, a Vermont-based printer that produces some 350 different magazines, publishers are increasingly putting the emphasis on graphics and photography, and glossy papers have become the industry norm, for both covers and interior pages. And, yes, this includes many outdoors and nature titles.

The basic glossy finish of a magazine cover or inside page is usually built into the paper itself at the time of manufacture, and is typically made of either clay or calcium carbonate. From a materials perspective, clay-based kaolin is the more environmentally friendly of the two, though clay makes the re-pulping of paper “gunkier” and thus more difficult to work with in the subsequent recycling process. Calcium carbonate also has its pros and cons: “The calcium is lighter, thus it takes less fuel to transport it, and it acts as a whitener, so less chlorine is needed to bleach the paper,” says Frank Locantore, who directs the WoodWise program for the nonprofit Coop America. “But it drives the destruction of mountain tops in Vermont and elsewhere in order to get at the mineral.”

Other glossy coatings are sometimes applied later at the printer as the last step in the printing process. In addition to enhancing the look of the cover, these coatings are used for the purpose of reducing the scuffing covers endure in handling and through the mail. Publishers generally have three choices: “varnish,” “aqueous” or “UV” coatings.

“Varnish” is essentially a clear petroleum based ink (no pigment), and is similar to the other inks that have already been applied to the paper. “Aqueous” coatings are water-based clear inks that use few chemicals but need a lot of heat to dry them, thus entailing greater energy usage. Another option is “UV coating,” a very glossy finish applied usually to heavier cover stocks and often used by fashion magazines and others going for a very slick appearance. The “UV” refers to the ultra-violet light used to dry it after application. It consumes less energy than heat, though the UV coatings themselves contain large amounts of petroleum-derived chemicals.

“Magazines want to be competitive on the newsstands, and most need to have a glossy cover in order to do so,” says Locantore. “Government,” he says, “should create incentives for R&D that develops hazardous chemical-free processes for papermaking and printing.” Locantore also says that consumers can play a key role in moving the industry forward by making their preferences for sustainable choices known to the magazines they read and subscribe to. Emails, phone calls or letters to publishers urging greener sourcing and operations will not go unnoticed, he says.

CONTACTS: Lane Press; Coop America’s WoodWise Program