Wood is a composite material made of cellulose fibers, bonded and made rigid by lignin. To make paper, mechanical and chemical processes are used to separate the cellulose fibers from lignin and other compounds. Wood pulp intended for white paper products undergoes an additional bleaching process to remove residual lignin.
Bleaching increases the performance and the brightness of the fibers, increasing their absorbency and turning them from brown to white. In addition, bleaching disintegrates contaminating particles, such as bark, and reduces the tendency of pulp to turn yellow (an important feature for archiving of information).
Elemental Chlorine (EC), combined with small amounts of chlorine dioxide, was the historical bleaching agent of the paper industry. However, EC has been determined to be the source of highly chlorinated organic compounds (dioxins), which are toxic to animal and human health, and are considered a probable human carcinogen. Almost all of the global paper industry has stopped using EC and turned to alternative processes, including:
Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) - chlorine dioxide is substituted for EC in the bleaching process; some processes also use additional bleaching agents such as oxygen and hydrogen peroxide.
Enhanced Elemental Chlorine Free (EECF) - removes more lignin and other contaminants before bleaching process through oxygen-based chemicals or prolonged delignification processes.
Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) - uses oxygen-based chemicals such as ozone and hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine-based compounds. TCF bleaching reduces the formation of pollutants but it can also use a greater amount of wood and energy per unit of product; TCF fibers may not entirely satisfy the performance needs of certain products.
Sources: Paper Task Force, 1995; Markets Initiative website.