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Q&A: Fiber Testing, Paper, and the Lacey Act

Answers to frequently asked questions about fiber testing, a technology that can help find potentially illegal wood in the paper supply chain.

In November 2010, WRI posted "Risk Free? Paper and the Lacey Act" in which we discussed using paper fiber testing to find potentially illegally harvested wood in paper products purchased in the United States. The article received a lot of interest from companies in the forest product supply chain and from civil society organizations working to reduce illegal logging. Here, we respond to some frequently asked questions about fiber testing and how one might use the technology to manage risk in the paper supply chain.

1. What is fiber testing?

<p>Ghose and Das. 2001</a>.</p>

Ghose and Das. 2001.

Fiber testing is a technology that is used to identify and quantify the mix of tree fibers contained in a sample of paper. Using high-power microscopes, specialized labs identify the composition of a sample of paper by observing the reactions of fibers when treated with various chemicals (e.g., change in color) and by identifying unique anatomical features in softwood fibers and hardwood vessels (e.g., shape, size, pit pattern). Vessels are structures that transport nutrients and water in plants and can be identified in paper. Depending on the quality of the fibers, experts can determine the pulp type (softwood vs. hardwood), pulping process (e.g., mechanical, chemical), the genus, and sometimes the species of the tree fibers contained in a paper sample.

2. Who uses fiber testing?

Fiber testing is an established technology used by the paper and pulp industry, mostly to confirm the fiber composition of products, which can have implications for product quality and equipment operation. Fiber testing has also been used to resolve disputes between paper mills and customers regarding paper composition. It has been used in court cases, and it has been used to confirm the authenticity of old documents.

Fiber testing is emerging as one of several resources available to buyers of paper products for conducting the “due care” or “due diligence” encouraged by policies such as the amended Lacey Act.

3. Who conducts fiber testing?

A number of companies conduct fiber analyses for the forest products industry, including:

4. My company wants to use fiber testing. What should I do?

  • Define your purpose. Knowing why you want to conduct fiber testing will help you determine what samples to test and what to look for in the lab results. For example, if you want to verify your supplier’s claim that 100 percent of the paper supplied comes from plantation-grown trees, test samples of the paper and check the lab results for types of trees not commonly used in plantations.

  • Select a lab. Lab technicians can help you better understand the testing process and can provide guidance.

  • Select your sample. Because it is not feasible to test your whole supply, you will need to choose a representative sample of the product for testing.

  • Submit samples to the lab. Each test usually requires a small portion of product, and the costs are relatively low per test. The lab can send the results back within a few weeks.

  • Assess the results.

5. What types of questions can fiber testing help answer?

Does the content of my paper match what I thought I purchased?Results showing a fiber composition that is different in terms of genus/species or percentage content from the product description (e.g., “made with 100 percent plantation fiber”) indicate that the product and its description do not match.
Is the paper made from plantation-grown trees?Results showing a high concentration of fibers from acacia, eucalyptus, or certain types of pines would suggest that the paper product was made from trees grown on plantations. Note that fiber testing cannot be used to distinguish between fibers from “well managed” versus “poorly managed” plantations.
Is the paper made from recycled material?Results showing a very wide range of tree types or a mix of species not normally found in the paper product’s region of origin are an indication that the paper may be made from recycled content.
Is the paper made from natural forests?

Results showing a high concentration of “mixed tropical hardwood” fibers would suggest that the paper product was made from trees harvested from natural tropical forests.

Results showing a high concentration of either mixed temperate (e.g., oaks, maples) or mixed boreal (e.g., spruces, pines, firs) types of trees would suggest that the paper product was made from trees harvested from natural forests of the mid-latitude (temperate) or northern (boreal) regions of the world, respectively.

Does the paper contain illegally harvested species?

Results would suggest that the paper product includes illegal fiber if the fiber’s genus or species is protected from being harvested or exported according to the laws of the country of origin, or if the type of tree is subject to trade restrictions or controls under international agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Once you know the country of origin of the fiber (see below), you can check that country’s laws to determine whether or not the presence of a particular genus/species is in violation of any of these laws. For CITES-listed trees, see the United Nations Environment Programme/World Conservation Monitoring Centre’s page of trees listed in CITES.

6. Does fiber testing identify the country of origin?

No. Fiber testing in itself cannot determine the country of origin of a paper product—unless the tree type only grows in one country. For tree types with a limited distribution, the identification of genus and species can help narrow the possible region of ultimate origin.

Country of origin can be found by other means. One approach is to ask your supplier questions such as, “In which country were the trees harvested?” A complementary approach for identifying and verifying the country of origin for a paper product is to look at additional documentation including:

  • The product itself. Many paper products include labels identifying the country where it was manufactured. Note that in some cases the manufacturing country is not necessarily the country where the trees were harvested due to cross-border trade of timber and pulp.

  • Transport documentation such as transportation permits and shipping contracts.

  • Trade documents such as plant health certificates and declaration forms, commercial contracts, and bills of lading. There are commercial databases that compile and track this type of information.

  • Brand names and product typology can also be linked to specific companies that may have a defined geographic area from where they purchase their raw material. There are commercial databases that compile and can help track this type of information.

7. Does fiber testing work on recycled paper?

Yes. Depending on the quality of the fibers, labs can identify and quantify the composition of the fiber in a paper sample, even if the fibers are recycled. However, it is not possible to definitively identify whether or not specific fibers have been recycled.

8. Can one identify tree species in paper products using DNA analysis?

No. Based on today’s technical capabilities, it is currently not possible to determine the tree species used to make refined, white paper products using DNA analysis. The DNA from the paper fibers is mostly destroyed due to the chemical treatment—such as chemical pulping and bleaching—involved in papermaking. But cellular structures, such as vessels and fibers, remain sufficiently intact to allow for fiber testing.

DNA analysis is already commercially viable for solid wood products and is rapidly developing, so capabilities might change in the future. DNA analysis may still be possible for mechanically pulped and non-bleached paper, making it feasible to test for both the species and the country of origin of the wood used in the paper within a few years.


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