Designers – Paper Mystery Solved: What Do PCF, TCF and ECF Actually Mean

There they are again, the odd, three-letter acronyms. I find them scattered throughout copy or under the waterfall of a swatchbook. They show-up everywhere … PCF, TCF, ECF, PCF, TCF, ECF.

Enough confusion. I’ll just call the mill’s sample department. They’ll know.

“You want to know whether … what?” My question obviously startles the friendly, sample lady. She covers the phone and I can hear her call around the room. “Does someone know about…? … Anyone?”

“Our paper is definitely PCF.”

But it doesn’t say “recycled” in the swatchbook. This call was one of ten I made, and it didn’t get any easier.

Now, it’s time to bring out your inner Sherlock Holmes. You definitely want to know what you are specking and should not be deterred, even if your spec rep or printer doesn’t know.

For years, the trend in the paper industry has been towards whiter and brighter papers. The original AFPA grade chart (the one that used to determine No. 1, No 2, etc., grades) ended with a brightness of 87.9, but now, papers with 95-98 brightness are common.

To achieve these wonderful brightness levels, pulp mills used to use chlorine gas. But, the chlorine molecules combined with organic molecules in the wood fibers created cancer-causing dioxins in the environment.

The good news is that virtually all North American mills have converted to at least “elemental chlorine free” processes. The ECF process uses chlorine derivatives, primarily chlorine dioxide, instead of elemental chlorine gas.

Three Free Chlorines

There are three terms commonly used in the papermaking process for bleaching paper:

Processed Chlorine-Free indicates that the recycled fiber in the sheet is unbleached or bleached with non-chlorine compounds. PCF papers are not considered totally chlorine-free because of the unknown bleaching process of the fibers that are recycled. Any virgin fibers in a PCF sheet must be TCF.

Totally Chlorine-Free means that 100 percent virgin fiber (including virgin tree-free fiber) is unbleached or bleached with non-chlorine compounds. It may also include wood or alternative fibers, such as kenaf. The term TCF cannot be used on recycled paper because the content of the original paper is unknown.

Elemental Chlorine-Free indicates virgin or recycled fiber that is bleached with chlorine dioxide or other chlorine compounds. This process significantly reduces hazardous dioxins, but does not completely eliminate them.

The paper industry changes faster than ever before. New and updated lines are coming into the market at rapid speed. So, don’t be shy about asking questions.

Bring out the Sherlock Holmes in you and make sure you know which “CF” you are specking. If a paper is not tagged PCF, TCF or ECF, chances are it was bleached with elemental chlorine gas and is not a good choice. Watch out Sherlock, though many mills claim to operate chlorine free, their products might not be because they buy their pulp “ready made.”

PCF paper is the preferable choice because it contains recycled fiber, while TCF refers only to 100% virgin paper. If you are concerned about the environmental effects of chlorine, select PCF papers, as long as they also meet recycled content goals.

Ask your mill rep or call the mill’s sample department. They’d love to hear all your questions, and if they don’t know the answers off-hand, they’ll be happy to find out for you.

Source by Sabine Lenz

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