Virgin fibre

Virgin Fibre

  • Introduction
  • Ancient forests
  • 'Sustainable forestry'
  • Forestry certification
  • FSC
  • PEFC
  • Pulping and bleaching
Shockingly, ancient forests are legally, and illegally, logged for timber products and some of these enter the UK, including paper.

There are only two types of virgin fibre: that produced from certified or uncertified forestry. As of December 2006 approximately two thirds of the world’s certified forests come under the PEFC umbrella and one third FSC.

PPE promotes the use of FSC certified fibre because its management practices are more stringent in environmental and social terms.

The flora and fauna of ancient or old growth forestry will have been shaped by natural events over centuries. On a worldwide scale such forests are relatively rare, and decreasing, for a number of reasons. Once disturbed or destroyed it is extremely unlikely that the forest environment will be left to recover its former state.

Given the ever-increasing (according to the paper industry) acres of commercial plantations, there should be no need to destroy forests of high conservation value, or to illegally log. Yet it is a fact that illegal logging does happen. To learn more about illegal logging and what happens to such timber in the market place, view WWF's report on illegal logging.


This term is, basically, a meaningless, obsolete marketing term. Formerly it was blithely applied to all plantations regardless of their actual status.

In December 2006 Robert Horne, one of the UK’s largest paper merchants, announced that they will no longer use the phrase ‘sustainable forestry’. Expect other paper companies to follow this lead.

It is no longer acceptable for paper to be marketed using this term as detailed information is readily available about fibre sources.

In 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development made sustainable forest management a priority.

In order to be truly sustainable a forest would have to be managed with three criteria in mind:
  • Environmental
  • Social
  • Economic

Of the forestry harvested in the UK only a small percentage, usually trimmings, goes into paper products; the vast majority of virgin fibre is imported. Some of this imported fibre will be certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), some by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification schemes (PEFC) and much will be uncertified.

PPE favours FSC forestry management certification as it is widely accepted to be more stringent in terms of both social and environmental factors.

The Forestry Stewardship Council is an international, non-governmental organisation dedicated to promoting responsible management of the world’s forests. Forests are inspected and certified against the 10 Principles of Forest Stewardship which take into account environmental, social and economic factors. The FSC is endorsed by the WWF, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and The Woodland Trust.

In addition to forest management and certification, the FSC Chain of Custody tracks the timber from the forest to the paper mill and sometimes to the printer. If a printer is FSC certified, then the end product can also be FSC certified ensuring that there has been no contamination between FSC and non-FSC material. However, the Chain of Custody is broken if the manufacturing mill or printer is not FSC certified.

In 2005 the FSC introduced the Mixed Sources label. This label allows for the inclusion of controlled wood and (where stated) reclaimed material as laid down in the standards. Controlled sources exclude:

  • illegally harvested timber
  • forests where high conservation values are threatened
  • genetically modified organisms
  • wood from forests harvested for the purpose of converting the land to plantations or other non-forest use.
An FSC accredited paper mill must be able to prove the origins of all the fibre it uses to the FSC.
The FSC also has also recently introduced a recycled label. To carry this label a material must be made from 100 per cent post-consumer waste and made by an accredited mill. The Chain of Custody works along the same lines as those for other FSC certified materials.

Launched in 1999 The Programme for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification (PEFC) is an international forest industry initiative, supported primarily by owners of small European forests.

Forestry management practices under PEFC vary from country to country and it is generally accepted that PEFC is less stringent than FSC in terms of management practices and consideration of social and environmental issues.

PEFC also operates a fibre tracking system.

It is not widely known that there are two methods of pulping virgin fibre (trees): mechanical and chemical. The mechanical process uses a grindstone to separate fibres and produces a yield of around 90% but it is an energy-intensive process. The chemical process dissolves the unwanted elements and produces a much lower yield of around 50%; the dissolved material can be collected and used an energy source.

Chlorine gas (elemental chlorine) was the main bleaching chemical for the bleaching of virgin fibre until the 1980s when it was found that paper mill effluent was causing environmental damage. Virgin fibre is now bleached by an Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) process, which uses chlorine dioxide, or a Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) process using hydrogen peroxide, sodium dithionite or oxygen compounds.