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Q: I’m shopping for wedding invitations and want to pick something that is both eco-friendly and affordable. Is 100% cotton paper (made partially from remnants from the textile industry) better than tree paper in terms of footprint? And can it be recycled like paper? —Sarah Engler
A: Hats off to you and your beloved for showing love for the Earth as you plan your wedding! The amount of paper used in U.S. wedding invitations every year is enough to cover the island of Manhattan, according to the Green Bride Guide, so eco0friendly choices can add up to a meaningful difference. In general, 100% cotton and other tree-free papers such as hemp, kenaf and (my favorite) banana leaf, are wonderful green alternatives to paper made from virgin wood pulp. Paper made from trees is perhaps the greatest threat to endangered rainforests, according to the Rainforest Action Network. It also packs the heaviest carbon footprint of any paper because standing forests capture and store carbon; when trees are cut, they release CO2 into the atmosphere and we lose that carbon “sink.”
Before you place your invitation paper order, though, ask how much of that recycled content is post-consumer! Post-consumer recycled waste or fiber (PCR or PCW) is the gold green standard for paper sourcing. One ream of 100% PCW paper saves 5 pounds of CO2 compared with conventional paper, according to Stopglobalwarming.org. A good rule of thumb is that a paper should contain at least 30% PCW.
For example, New Leaf makes a banana fiber paper that’s 100% recycled, with a minimum 35% PCW. It’s also processed without chlorine, which keeps carcinogenic dioxins out of our air and water.
This is not to discount the value of recycled cotton remnants in the stationery you’re considering. If these trimmings were not reused, they would end up clogging landfills. However, if they are “virgin,” pre-consumer fiber, it’s worth considering the considerable carbon footprint associated with growing conventional cotton, which uses heavy amounts of fossil-fuel-derived pesticides and fertilizers. If the cotton in your paper is PCW, that helps offset its carbon weight.
Another offset, though, is to remind recipients to recycle their invitations. Tree-free papers actually can go into recycling bins with regular paper. In cotton’s favor, its long fibers can be recycled into PCW paper many more times than conventional tree paper, which can only go up to three rounds.
If you're still looking around, check out Greenfield Papers, which has tree-free options of cotton or hemp, some containing up to 75% post-consumer fiber, is available from makers such as Greenfield Papers. Also not to be ruled out are high-PCW content wood-pulp papers sourced from well-managed forests: look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) seal. For more green paper suggestions, visit Conservatree.org.
Mindy Pennybacker regularly answers readers' green-living questions. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.