Week of 11/04/2007

Dear EarthTalk: 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

Dear EarthTalk: In lieu of federal action in the U.S. to combat global warming, have any states taken local measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

—David, Monterey, CA

Though the Bush administration has been slow to even admit that global warming is a serious issue, and has rejected the terms of the Kyoto Protocol (an international agreement calling on developed nations to curb greenhouse gas emissions), more than 30 U.S. states have passed legislation and/or formed regional coalitions on their own to promote energy efficiency and reduce the emissions that cause global warming.

The leading state in the battle against climate change is California, which as early as 2002 began calling on carmakers to reduce the greenhouse gases generated by new vehicles sold there. In 2003, California joined neighbors Oregon and Washington in laying out a set of recommendations for how states could combat global warming by setting emissions reduction targets for state vehicle fleets and enacting energy efficiency standards for a wide range of other products. By the end of 2004, the west coast triumvirate had jointly adopted the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions upwards of 15 percent by 2015.

Always pushing the envelope, California then adopted a controversial measure requiring automakers to reduce their vehicles" greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2016. Since then, 14 other states—Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington—have adopted California’s tough standards. With Canada’s government following suit in 2004, some 40 percent of North America’s new car fleet could be much cleaner within a decade—although carmakers are fighting the proposal tooth and nail.

Beyond automotive emissions, California is leading the charge against global warming in other ways. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an executive order in 2004 calling for reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 80 percent over five decades. And in 2006 the state assembly passed its landmark Global Warming Solutions Act limiting the output of greenhouse gases there to 1990 levels by 2020. California is the world’s sixth largest economy and 12th largest producer of greenhouse gases, so its proactive stance should have a large impact on overall efforts to mitigate climate change.

Other efforts are underway as well. In 2006, seven northeastern states formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to create a system of economic incentives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Each participating state—Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont—has agreed to stabilize current emissions through 2015 followed by a 10 percent reduction over the following five years. Meanwhile 18 states, led by New York, Hawaii, Maine and California, have legislated that some of the electricity they consume must come from non-polluting renewable sources.

Given the groundswell of action to mitigate global warming at the state level—more than half of the U.S. population lives in states where reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are or will become mandatory—America may be able to meet the requirements laid out by the Kyoto Protocol, even without federal participation.

CONTACTS: California Climate Change Portal; Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative