Green Living: Green Living Guides

Avoiding Chlorine in the Paper Bleaching Process
Recommendations for safer ways to brighten and whiten paper.

When chlorine is used to bleach paper, the process can also result in the formation of harmful chemicals such as dioxins and furans, which are known to cause cancer in humans. The safest paper bleaching processes are totally chlorine-free (TCF) or processed chlorine-free (PCF). See the list below for detailed explanations.

Totally chlorine-free (TCF): Virgin paper produced without chlorine or chlorine derivatives (the bleaching process uses oxygen-based compounds).

Processed chlorine-free (PCF): Contains recycled content produced without elemental chlorine or chlorine derivatives, although one or more fiber components may have originally been bleached with chlorine or chlorine derivatives. Any virgin pulp is TCF.

Elemental chlorine-free (Traditional ECF): Replaces elemental chlorine with chlorine dioxide in the bleaching process.

ECF with extended or oxygen delignification (Enhanced ECF): Removes more of the lignin from the wood before bleaching, thus reducing energy and chemical use during bleaching (the final stage uses chlorine dioxide).

Enhanced ECF with ozone or hydrogen peroxide: In addition to removing more of the lignin from the wood before bleaching, substitutes ozone or hydrogen peroxide for chlorine or chlorine dioxides as a brightening agent in the initial stages of the bleaching process (the final or near-final stage uses chlorine dioxide).

NRDC's order of preference for bleaching processes, on the basis of environmental criteria, is as follows:

  1. PCF (preferable to TCF because product includes recycled content; TCF is used only to refer to 100 percent virgin paper)

  2. TCF

  3. Enhanced ECF with ozone or hydrogen peroxide

  4. Enhanced ECF (ECF with extended or oxygen delignification)

  5. Traditional ECF

  6. Bleached using elemental chlorine (not preferred. In the United States, elemental chlorine was phased out as of April 2001, per the EPA's Cluster Rule.)

last revised 9.20.06

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