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Ask G: Tree-free and wood-free paper

Claims of 'tree-free' and 'wood free' paper aren't environmental promises

I've been looking at paper stock for our business printing needs. I've seen both 'wood-free' and 'tree-free' written in paper descriptions, but I've got a gut feeling that they're not really making any environmental promises. Am I being overly sceptical or can you clarify this?

Sue, Vic

Tree bark

Yes, even tree-free paper grows on trees!

Credit: Scott Robinson

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We need to start with some background information. Firstly, lignin is the substance in plant tissues that holds the fibres together, but over time it also makes paper yellow and it becomes brittle.

Secondly, there are two main pulping methods that turn wood chips into pulp.

Mechanical pulping basically grinds the wood to pulp. This pulp retains the lignin.

Chemical pulping uses chemicals to break down and remove the lignin that holds the plant fibres together, preserving the fibre length and strength, but producing a lower yield from the wood.

'Wood-free' is commonly used jargon in the paper industry for papers made from chemical pulp (as opposed to mechanical pulp).

'Tree-free' is usually used for recycled or alternative fibre papers.

However, they're occasionally used interchangeably, so read the detail in the paper specification.