EVER since Johann Gutenberg began setting type back in the 15th century, a sign of status in written communication or publishing has been the whiteness of paper. The brighter and cleaner looking, the better.
But the substance that papermakers for years have been using to achieve that whiteness - chlorine - has become an environmental hazard in the eyes of many experts. As a result, the paper industry has begun looking for chlorine substitutes and markets for reduced-chlorine products.
It's been a tough haul, though, particularly since most pulp mills have been working at below capacity in the current economic climate. The one plant in the United States capable of being ``totally chlorine free'' - Louisiana-Pacific's Samoa mill in northern California - shut down temporarily at the end of February for lack of orders, laying off 240 workers.
The problem with chlorine is its link to very poisonous substances (including dioxins) suspected of causing serious health problems. Chlorine compounds do not biodegrade easily, accumulating in greater concentrations in the food chain.
The federal government is under increasing pressure to reduce if not eliminate chlorine bleach from the wood pulp that becomes paper. The Clinton administration's proposal for reauthorization of the Clean Water Act calls for ``substituting, reducing, or prohibiting the use of chlorine and chlorinated compounds.''
In Congress, Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico is pushing the ``Chlorine Zero Discharge Act.'' The bill, which has more than 40 co-sponsors, would require a complete phaseout of chlorine or other chlorinated oxidizing agents in the paper industry over five years.
In response to an environmental lawsuit, and in order to ``keep one step ahead of the regulations,'' as corporate spokesman Barry Lacter puts it, Louisiana-Pacific (L-P) developed a process that uses oxygen, caustics, and hydrogen peroxide - but no chlorine - to produce pulp. Paper made from this pulp is only slightly less bright, and the cost of the pulp so far is only about 10 percent higher.
Most of L-P's modest business in chlorine-free pulp has been in Europe, where environmental regulations for papermaking are stricter, and where there is more of a market. Company officials have been talking with representatives of the Times-Mirror publishing company and also with federal government agencies.
``There are encouraging signs, but we still have a long way to go to build a market,'' says Mr. Lacter from company headquarters in Portland, Ore. One of those encouraging signs is President Clinton's executive order last October in which government agencies were directed to purchase ``environmentally preferable'' products.
OTHER companies are moving in this direction. International Paper, headquartered in Westchester County, N.Y., plans to convert all its bleached pulp and paper mills to ``elemental chlorine-free'' (ECF) technology. While a chlorine dioxide compound still is used here, elemental chlorine gas (from which toxic dioxins and furans form) is not.
Four International Paper plants will be ECF by the end of this year, with the company's seven remaining plants converted by 1996, says company spokesman Carl Gagliardi.
While industry officials say reducing chlorine adds to plant investment and operating costs, the environmental organization Greenpeace reported last February that mills in Canada and the US could save at least $1.4 billion a year by getting rid of chlorine. The savings would come through reduced requirements for energy, water, chemicals, and waste disposal, Greenpeace asserts.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Georgia have developed a chlorine-free process for pulp that uses enzymes to remove lignin, the glue-like substance that holds wood fibers together.
``With our process, I would be very surprised if you would see any environmental impact whatsoever,'' says biochemist Karl-Erik Eriksson, who heads the university research team developing what they are calling the ``EnZone'' process. ``With this process we can obtain fully bleached pulps with fully acceptable strength properties and even higher quality paper.''