Environmental Impacts of the Paper Industry

Wisconsin is the United States largest paper producer, and has been for years. Pulp and paper companies also constitute the largest manufacturing sector in the state, providing thousands of high-paid jobs. Unfortunately, the environment, and our democracy, has suffered because of it.

Contaminated Sediments

The paper industry has been a major source of accumulated toxic chemicals in several rivers in Wisconsin, most notably of PCBs to the Fox River and Green Bay system in northeast Wisconsin. As a result of recycling PCB-containing carbonless copy paper, area mill operations discharged about 250,000 pounds of PCB’s contaminating Lower Fox River sediment.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an estimated 160,000 pounds of PCB’s have already left the river and entered Green Bay and Lake Michigan.  The EPA further estimates that on average, 300-500 additional pounds are flushed from the Fox River sediment each year.

Since 1985, the Clean Water Action Council has been fighting to get PCBs removed from the river.  CWAC has pushed for removal over simply capping because floods could flush additional thousands of pounds into Green Bay.  Once PCBs are released into the bay and Lake Michigan, they would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover, according to the EPA.  Of the 11 million tons of sediment thought to be contaminated, two million cubic yards have been dredged through 2012.

On May 2013, U.S. District Judge Griesbach issued a significant ruling finding that the government can require any of the seven companies to do all of the remaining work or any portions of that work.  Dredging continued in 2013 with a goal to remove at least 575,000 cubic yards.  Capping, which began in 2011, was also expected to continue.   

Continuing Toxic Pollution

The paper industry is a major source of toxic chemical pollution in Wisconsin. The federal and state Toxic Release Inventories shows releases of approximately 14 million pounds of known toxic substances in 1996. Modest reductions in chemical use over the years (per unit of production) seem to be countered by increased production.

Many toxic chemicals are used in paper making, especially toxic solvents and chlorine compounds used to bleach and delignify pulp. Additional toxins are used as biocides to prevent bacterial growth in the pulp and finished paper products. (In the past, toxic mercury compounds were used as biocides, contributing to Wisconsin's mercury contamination problems in fish.) [See Toxic Pollution]

Conventional Air Pollution

Pulp and paper mills are large sources of standard air pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxides, carbon monoxides and particulates. These contribute to ozone warnings, acid rain, global warming and respiratory problems. Many of the mills are large enough to have their own coal-fired power plants, raising additional concerns about mercury, arsenic and radioactive emissions. [see Air Pollution]

Energy Consumption

Paper making is energy intensive, drawing larges amount of electricity from public utilities, or forcing mills to build their own power plants. This is a signficant contributor to the air pollution in our region, and to the hidden damages due to fuel extraction at the source (oil drilling, oil spills, coal mining, pipelines, transmission lines, etc.) (see Energy)

Water Consumption

Paper-making is energy intensive, drawing a large amount of electricity from public utilities, or forcing mills to build their own power plants. This is a significant contributor to the air pollution in our region, and to the hidden damages due to fuel extraction at the source (oil drilling, oil spills, coal mining, pipelines, transmission lines, etc.) [See Energy]

Solid Waste

Paper-making generally produces a large amount of solid waste. Unfortunately, landfilling costs in northeast Wisconsin are relatively cheap (often less than $27 per ton), so the industry has little incentive for making more efficient use of its materials.  Because we have so many paper recycling industries in our area, an even larger quantity of waste is generated. Paper fibers can be recycled only a limited number of times before they become too short or weak to make high quality paper. This means the broken, low-quality fibers are separated out to become waste sludge.

Paper Machine

All the inks, dyes, coatings, pigments, staples and "stickies" (tape, plastic films, etc.) are also washed off the recycled fibers to join the waste solids. The shiny finish on glossy magazine-type paper is produced using a fine kaolin clay coating, which also becomes solid waste during recycling. These paper mill sludges consume a large percentage of our local landfill space each year. Worse yet, some of the wastes are land spread on cropland as a disposal technique, raising concerns about trace contaminants building up in soil or running off into area lakes and streams. Some companies burn their sludge in incinerators, contributing to our serious air pollution problems, including the release of dioxin.


Worldwide, enormous tracts of virgin forest are being felled for paper pulp production, contributing to the world's tragic deforestation trends. Many Wisconsin mills import their pulp and undoubtedly some of this pulp came from old-growth endangered forests. Citizen networks have formed worldwide in an effort to save the last of these precious, irreplaceable places. (Trees may be renewable, but ancient forest plant and animal communities are often not renewable because of the complex ecological balance that was built over thousands, even millions, of years in some of these forests.)

Corruption of Democracy

Paper is king in Wisconsin, literally. For many decades, the industry has been pampered by local, state and federal governments -- with tax breaks, energy breaks, incentive grants, university research projects, employee training programs, cheap water, cheap pulpwood, cheap landfills, and other generous subsidies. The paper industry is an example of corporate control over state government. The paper industry gives generously to political campaigns, and is rewarded.

For 30 years, the paper industry successfully blocked the Fox River PCB cleanup, and they have been extremely influential in weakening Wisconsin's air, water and solid waste regulations since the beginnings of those programs. Any time a new environmental standard is proposed, the paper industry lobbyists are there, often in large numbers, to protect the paper industry from its responsibilities. Politicians provide no leadership. It appears that the Republicans are more concerned with protecting the corporations, while the Democrats are more concerned with labor unions and protecting paper worker jobs. Neither seems to care about the bigger picture of public health protection, natural resource conservation or environmental sustainability.

For more information:

Wisconsin One of Top 20 Air Polluters - http://host.madison.com/business/biz_beat/biz-beat-wisconsin-among-toxic-states-for-air-pollution/article_9bd9a6f4-e28d-11e1-89d6-001a4bcf887a.html

Fox River Cleanup Status - http://foxrivercleanup.com/

© Clean Water Action Council

P.O. Box 9144

Green Bay, WI 54308

(920) 421-8885

Office location:
A307 MAC Hall, UW-Green Bay
2420 Nicolet Drive
Green Bay, WI 54311