To the editors:
Why is it that whenever someone wants to extoll the sustainability benefits of plastic packaging products, they feel compelled to claim that plastics have “a lower environmental impact” than paper-based packaging (America succumbs to plastic paranoia, September 26) instead of simply making a fact-based environmental case? Could it be because paper products are the gold standard for circularity and true sustainability?
In this case, the author makes gratuitous claims that plastic packaging “helps the planet” and “saves tens of millions of trees every year,” citing “real scientists” from Sweden and Denmark to back up his claims of plastic’s green superiority. In doing so, he invites comparisons that, of necessity, must also catalog the environmental consequences of plastic packaging, from the extraction of finite resources and energy use to the fate of final products.
To start with, the many different resins used to make plastics are derived from non-renewable fossil fuels, namely natural gas, feedstocks derived from natural gas processing, and feedstocks derived from crude oil refining (U.S. Energy Information Administration). And single-use plastics also are incredibly energy-intensive to produce. In fact, plastic production accounts for more than 3% of total U.S. energy consumption, using roughly the same amount of oil as the global aviation industry, which in turn generates significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (U.S. Department of Energy).
And while Americans toss millions of tons of plastic packaging into their recycling bins, not much of it actually gets recycled. A recycling PR campaign recently launched by the plastics industry says that 6 billion pounds (3 million tons) of plastic get recycled each year, but that’s only about 9% of the total plastic produced annually in the U.S. according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There are just too many different types of plastic, each with different recycling requirements, so they can’t be combined and recycled together. Building out the infrastructure to effectively collect, sort and recycle them poses extremely difficult logistical and economic challenges – challenges that are not likely to be met any time soon, if ever.
Given the finite resources and large amounts of fossil fuel energy used to produce them along with their low recycling rate, it’s a bit of a stretch to imply that plastics meet the generally accepted definition of circularity: industrial processes and economic activities that are 1) restorative or regenerative by design, 2) enable resources used to maintain their highest value for as long as possible, and 3) aim to eliminate waste through the superior design of materials, products and systems.
Paper-based packaging, on the other hand, has a demonstrably circular life cycle.
Paper-based packaging is manufactured using an infinitely renewable natural resource – trees that are purpose-grown, harvested and re-grown in sustainably managed forests. And it is manufactured in a process that uses mostly (64% on average in the U.S.) renewable bioenergy. This fact, combined with investments in energy efficiency and process improvements helped the U.S. paper industry reduce GHG emissions per ton of production by more than 24% since 2005. (American Forest and Paper Association, AF&PA). According to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the pulp and paper industry is not a major contributor to climate change, contributing less than 0.6% of total U.S. CO2e emissions.
While all of these unique environmental characteristics make paper arguably one of the most sustainable products on earth, it’s the paper industry’s investment in recycling infrastructure that makes the paper life cycle truly circular. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. industry has voluntarily bankrolled billions of dollars in recycling infrastructure, including $7 billion in completed or announced investments between 2019 and 2025. Today, 94% of Americans have access to a community paper recycling program, and 79% have access to residential/curbside recycling programs, this according to a comprehensive national study commissioned by AF&PA in 2021.
Because paper recycling is accessible and easy, U.S. businesses and consumers have embraced it in a big way. With a recycling rate of 68% (~46 million tons annually), paper and paper-based packaging are the most recycled material in the U.S. municipal solid waste stream (EPA). And that rate jumps to nearly 94% for cardboard packaging (AF&PA).
Kathi Rowzie, President
Two Sides North America
DAYTON, Ohio, June 26, 2023 – If you recently made a purchase online, you’re not alone. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that retail e-commerce sales topped $272 billion in the first quarter of 2023, up 7.8% from the same period last year. Along with this continuing growth in online purchases comes an increasing awareness of the materials used to package and ship products, and the impact these materials have on the environment. A new survey commissioned by Two Sides North America and conducted by international research firm Toluna found that U.S. consumers believe paper-based packaging is better for the environment than other packaging materials.
Paper: The preferred and sustainable packaging choice
Survey respondents were asked to rank their preferred packaging material (paper/cardboard, plastic, glass and metal) based on 15 environmental, aesthetic and practical attributes. Overall, paper/cardboard packaging was preferred for 10 of the 15 attributes, including all environmental attributes, with half of respondents saying paper/cardboard is better for the environment than other types of packaging. Consumers also preferred paper/cardboard packaging for being home compostable (59%) and easier to recycle (43%).
Glass packaging was preferred by consumers for four practical and aesthetic attributes, including being reusable (39%), having a preferred look and feel (39%), providing a better image for the brand (38%) and better protection (35%). 45% preferred metal packaging for being strong and robust. Plastic packaging was not preferred for any of the 15 attributes, and only one in 10 respondents believes plastic packaging is better for the environment.
Consumers demand that brands and retailers do more
Brands and retailers play a crucial role in driving innovation and the use of recyclable packaging. In response to increasing consumer pressure to operate more sustainably, brands and retailers in many sectors, from wine, spirits and soft drinks to candy, cosmetics and apparel are shifting from plastic to paper packaging.
The survey found that 55% of consumers would buy more from brands and retailers who remove plastic from their packaging, up from 49% in 2021. 50% said they are actively taking steps to increase their use of paper packaging, up from 41% over the past two years. 47% said they would consider avoiding a retailer that is not actively trying to reduce their use of non-recyclable packaging, up from 39% in 2021.
“As the call for circular product life cycles grows louder, paper has always had a head start,” says Two Sides North America President Kathi Rowzie. “The paper industry’s longstanding and continuing investment in recycling infrastructure, support of community recycling programs and consumer education on what and how to recycle have transformed the circularity of paper-based packaging from vision to reality. At a time when there is growing alarm about the low recycled rates of other packaging materials, paper recycling is a striking exception.”
68% of paper and paper-based packaging in the United States gets recovered and recycled into new products, and that jumps to more than 91% for corrugated cardboard. In comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection reports that plastics, glass and metals are recycled at just 9%, 25% and 34%, respectively.
The 2023 Two Sides Trend Tracker Survey queried 1,000 respondents over age 18 across the United States. It is the second of Two Sides’ biennial trend tracker studies designed to explore and better understand consumer perceptions, behaviors and preferences related to the sustainability of paper products.
Download the press release here.
About Two Sides North America
Two Sides North America (www.twosidesna.org) is part of the non-profit Two Sides global network which includes more than 600 member companies across North America, South America, Latin America, Europe, Australia and South Africa. Our mission is to dispel common environmental misconceptions and to inspire and inform businesses and consumers with engaging, factual information about the inherent environmental sustainability and enduring value of print, paper and paper-based packaging.
Kathi Rowzie, President
Two Sides North America
We know the circular life cycle of North American paper products begins as wood from sustainably managed forests where trees are purpose-grown, harvested and regrown in perpetuity. But once that wood reaches a pulp and paper mill, how does the manufacturing process contribute to circularity and minimize environmental impacts of paper products?
Download a transcript of the podcast here.
Have you heard that the earth is flat, literally flat? Yes, there are serious organizations making impressive-sounding arguments and throwing scientific jargon in every direction to disprove what real science and observation have taught us about our planet, but in the end the earth is still round. So it is with the claim that paper manufacturing is “a major contributor to climate change.”
Too many ENGOs and other self-interested parties have invested years trying to refute the findings of global scientific authorities like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the paper industry is largely greenhouse gas neutral. But just like the Flat Earth argument, it takes only a little high school science, sound data and a bit of common sense to separate the truth from the blizzard of activist rhetoric posing as climate change “studies.”
In high school science class, we learned about photosynthesis, the process where trees absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, and with the help of radiant energy from the sun convert that CO2 into tree fiber called biomass. As trees grow, they continue to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it as biomass until they die, decay or are burned, at which time the CO2 simply returns to the atmosphere in a natural carbon cycle. This “biogenic” carbon cycle remains in balance and no net carbon is added to the atmosphere as long as forest carbon stocks – the carbon stored in forest biomass – remain stable or increase.
The biogenic carbon cycle concept is central to globally recognized greenhouse gas inventory and accounting protocols, including the IPCC’s Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories. As stated in the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report, “In the long-term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, wood fiber or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained [climate change] mitigation benefit.”
Are forest stocks in the United States growing? The answer is a resounding “yes,” thanks in great part to the sustainable forestry practices and forest certification advocated by the paper industry. The U.S. Forest Service reports that U.S forests grow approximately two times more tree volume than is harvested each year, with net average annual growing forest stock of about 25 billion cubic feet.
It’s not unusual for anti-paper activist fundraising campaigns to include photos of a recently harvested plot of forestland, claiming that such harvests have “devastating climate impacts” because it takes decades for replanted or naturally regenerated trees to grow back and replace the carbon that was removed during harvest. While this type of chicanery may be successful in raising money from unwitting individuals and corporations, it completely ignores the science and economics of sustainable forest management.
In the real world, a balanced biogenic carbon cycle is measured across large spatial landscapes and averaged over time, not as a one-time snapshot of a single plot of land. In sustainably managed forests, a balanced carbon cycle is maintained by harvesting trees on some plots which are then regenerated by replanting or natural means, while trees on other plots continue to grow and absorb carbon. In fact, keeping growing forest eco-systems healthy and productive while regenerating areas that have been harvested for paper and other wood-based products (or damaged by forest fires or insects) is the very definition of sustainable forestry. And it takes little more than common sense to understand that sustainable forest management is critical to the paper industry’s long-term supply of raw materials, and thus its long-term economic health.
Very little of the sustainably grown wood used in papermaking goes to waste. In addition to the fiber that eventually ends up in paper products, leftovers from the tree harvesting and papermaking processes – things like sawdust, small limbs, bark, and wood residuals from the pulping process – are used to generate renewable energy at U.S. paper mills.
Some in the activist community contend that burning biomass for energy at paper mills is a major contributor to climate change because doing so releases large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. While CO2 is released, it is an inherent part of the biogenic carbon cycle and adds no net carbon to the environment. This is significantly different from burning fossil fuels. When fossil fuels are removed from geologic reserves in the ground and burned for energy, this adds carbon to the atmosphere that has been stored for millions of years – essentially new carbon that contributes to climate change.
How much biomass does the U.S. paper industry use to power its operations? The American Forest and Paper Association reports that nearly two-thirds of the energy needs at U.S. pulp and paper mills (64% on average) are met using renewable biofuels, mostly biomass. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), displacing fossil fuels with this sustainable bioenergy prevents about 181 million metric tons of CO2 emissions from entering the atmosphere each year. That’s roughly equal to removing 35 million cars from the road annually.
So how does paper manufacturing fit into the overall picture when it comes to GHG emissions and their impact on climate change? The pulp and paper sector was among the first to take voluntary action to reduce GHGs, so it’s no surprise that U.S. paper mills and manufacturing facilities have a solid record of GHG reduction. According to the U.S. EPA’s most recent data, emissions from the sector have steadily declined in recent years, down 21% between 2011 and 2021. This reduction is attributed to the increasing use of carbon-neutral biomass fuel, the switch from coal and oil to less carbon-intensive fossil fuels such as natural gas, and technology enhancements that improved overall energy efficiency.
Is paper manufacturing a major contributor to climate change? Contrary to activist claims and pop culture headlines, the answer is clearly, “no,” and the data supports this finding. According to the EPA, the U.S. pulp and paper industry is responsible for less than 0.6% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
For more facts about the sustainability of paper products, click here.
Since its inception, the Two Sides North America Anti-greenwashing Campaign has eliminated literally billions of instances of paper-related greenwashing in the United States and Canada – and engagement with large utilities, banks and insurers in January and February has set the pace for millions more in 2023.
So far this year, seven additional companies representing 40 million customers have removed “go green, go paperless,” “go paperless, protect the environment” and similar claims from their marketing communications.
“In addition to misleading consumers, these types of unsubstantiated environmental claims pose a serious threat to the economic security of the more than 7 million people whose livelihoods depend on a healthy North American paper, printing and mailing sector,” says Two Side North America President Kathi Rowzie. “Our recent research found that 65% of consumers who’ve seen anti-paper greenwashing are influenced to go paperless.”
That same research found that the Two Sides Anti-greenwashing Campaign has annually preserved more than $300 million in revenue for the paper, printing and mailing sector over the last decade.
Two Sides challenges greenwashing companies to remove unsubstantiated environmental claims in a non-confrontational way, educating CEOs and other senior management with facts from credible, third-party sources that clearly demonstrate the unique sustainability characteristics of paper products and the solid and continually improving environmental record of the North American paper industry.
“Paper is one of the few products on earth that already has an environmentally sustainable, circular life cycle,” Rowzie says. “North American paper is made from an infinitely renewable natural resource – trees that are purpose-grown, harvested and regrown in sustainably managed forests. It’s manufactured using mostly renewable, carbon neutral bioenergy in a process that uses water, but in reality consumes very little of it. And paper products are recycled more than any other material. But many consumers believe paper is bad for the environment because corporations and other organizations they trust are telling them so. Two Sides is working hard to change that.”
You can help Two Sides in the fight to eliminate anti-paper greenwashing and protect North American jobs. If you see instances of greenwashing, please email them as a PDF, JPG file or link to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In today’s industrial marketplace, the concept of a circular economy is finally inching beyond theoretical ideals to real-world applications that will make our planet healthier and more sustainable. But becoming truly circular doesn’t come easy or cheap. It’s a challenge that requires intent, investment and innovation. The paper industry figured this out decades ago, and it has been at the leading edge of circularity ever since.
In fact, paper manufacturing exemplifies the very definition of circularity – industrial processes and economic activities that are 1) restorative or regenerative by design, 2) enable resources used to maintain their highest value for as long as possible, and 3) aim to eliminate waste through the superior design of materials, products and systems. Most alternatives don’t even come close. Take plastics, for example.
Plastic packaging is made from a variety of plastic resins. These include polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soft drink and water bottles, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) milk and water jugs, film products (including bags and sacks) made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and other containers and packaging (including clamshells, trays, caps, lids, egg cartons, loose fill, produce baskets, coatings and closures) made up of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), polypropylene (PP) and other resins (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). All of these resins are derived from non-renewable fossil fuels, namely natural gas, feedstocks derived from natural gas processing, and feedstocks derived from crude oil refining (U.S. Energy Information Administration).
Single-use plastics also are incredibly energy-intensive to produce. In fact, plastic production accounts for more than 3% of total U.S. energy consumption and generates large amounts of carbon pollution (U.S. Department of Energy).
Plastics are a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. solid waste stream and, critical to any discussion of circularity, very little of it gets recycled (U.S. EPA). Drawing on the most recent EPA data available and last year’s plastic-waste exports, a new report published by environmental organizations Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup estimates that Americans recycled only 5% to 6% of their plastics, down from the 8.7% reported by the EPA in 2018. But the real figure could be even lower, the report said, given factors such as the plastic waste collected for recycling that is instead sent to cement kilns and burned. The report states that, “Despite the stark failure of plastics recycling, the plastics, packaging and products industries have waged a decades-long misinformation campaign to perpetuate the myth that plastic is recyclable.”
“Plastics recycling does not work, it never will work, and no amount of false advertising will change that,” Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional administrator, said in a press release.
“There is no circular economy for plastics,” added Jan Dell, founder of The Last Beach Cleanup. “Plastics and products companies co-opted the success of other materials recycling and America’s desire to recycle to create the myth that plastic is recyclable.”
The life cycle of paper tells a different story.
Paper products are manufactured using an infinitely renewable natural resource – trees that are purpose-grown, harvested and re-grown in sustainably managed forests. Thanks in great part to the sustainable forestry practices and third-party forest certification advanced by the paper industry, net U.S. forest area increased around 18 million acres over the past 30 years (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization).
The paper manufacturing process uses mostly renewable, carbon-neutral energy generated from biomass which, when burned, recycles biogenic carbon (carbon absorbed from the atmosphere and stored in trees) back into the environment. This fact, combined with investments in energy efficiency and process improvements helped the U.S. paper industry reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per ton of product produced by 24.1% between 2005 and 2020 (American Forest and Paper Association). According to the U.S. EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the pulp and paper industry is not a major contributor to climate change. In 2020, the industry was responsible for 0.6% of total CO2e emissions, compared to 0.5% in 2019. The industry’s actual emissions were slightly lower in 2020, but increased as a percentage of total emissions, which decreased 11% due to the reduction in transportation-related fossil fuel emissions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Water used in the manufacturing process at a typical U.S. paper mill is recycled up to 10 times. Then it’s cleaned to meet strict state and federal water quality standards and most of it, around 90%, is returned to its source. About 1% remains in the manufactured paper products, and the rest evaporates back into the environment (National Council on Air and Stream Improvement, NCASI). And mills that produce kraft pulp have highly efficient recovery systems that capture and recycle about 97% of pulping chemicals (NCASI).
While all of these unique environmental characteristics make paper arguably one of the most sustainable products on earth, it’s the paper industry’s investment in recycling infrastructure that makes the paper life cycle truly circular. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. industry has voluntarily bankrolled billions of dollars in recycling infrastructure, including $5 billion in investments announced or planned between 2019 and 2024. Today, 94% of Americans have access to a community paper recycling program, and 79% have access to residential/curbside recycling programs, this according to a comprehensive national study commissioned by AF&PA in 2021.
Because paper recycling is accessible and easy, U.S. businesses and consumers have embraced it in a big way. With a recycling rate of 68% (AF&PA), paper is the most recycled material in the United States (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), and that number jumps to a remarkable 91.4% for cardboard packaging (AF&PA).
Click here for even more facts about paper’s contributions to a more sustainable, circular economy.
In so many fundamental ways, environmental sustainability is baked into the nature of the paper and paper-based packaging industry – from the ability and financial incentive to regrow its primary raw material to the biodegradability of its products. As the call for the circularity of product lifecycles is growing louder, paper has always had a head start. And the industry’s strong support and investment in recycling has transformed the circularity of paper products from vision to reality. At a time when there is growing alarm about the low recycled rates of other materials, paper recycling is a stark exception.
While the recycling rate of other materials is as low as the single digits – for example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports the recycling rate for plastics is just 8.7% – 66% of all paper products in the United States and 70% in Canada are being recycled. This is near the theoretical maximum recycling rate when items like hygiene products and long-held items such as archived records and books are excluded. For those grades that can be almost entirely recovered and reused, such as corrugated cardboard boxes, recycling rates are higher than 90%.
This level of success is only possible because the paper industry and consumers interact in the free market that drives the paper lifecycle. Since the early 90s, manufacturers have voluntarily responded to the market’s need for greater supplies of recovered fiber with massive voluntary investment in capital-intensive machinery and transport. And according to the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA), U.S. pulp and packaging producers are committed to investing an additional $4.1 billion in manufacturing infrastructure between 2019 and 2023. Now, approximately 80% of all U.S. paper mills use some recovered fiber to make everything from paper-based packaging and printing papers to newspaper and tissue. The continuing investment in recycling technology is allowing paper manufacturers to reach further into the wastepaper stream to use fiber that was previously unrecoverable.
In fact, the AF&PA’s just-released Design Guidance for Recyclability tackles one of the remaining challenges to even higher recycling rates for paper-based packaging. The Guide provides a clear understanding of how packaging gets recycled in paper mills and how various non-fiber elements (inks, coatings, adhesives, polymer windows, et. al) affect the recyclability of paper-based packaging. It’s intended to help consumer products companies and their manufacturing supply chain partners more effectively design and produce packaging that meets growing customer demand for recyclability.
At the other end of the lifecycle, millions of households and tens of thousands of North America’s businesses and municipalities willingly participate in what amounts to a continent-wide partnership with industry, driven by paper’s ease of recovery and decades of local investment in the collection infrastructure. A 2014 survey found that 96% of Americans have access to community curbside or drop-off paper recycling programs, or both. Access numbers for Canadians are in the 94% to 96% range.
However, in a blind rush to address other materials that have never come close to the recycling rates of paper, especially those like plastics that don’t readily degrade in the environment and that often contain toxic substances, some state governments are considering actions that make no environmental or economic sense. Their latest prescription is a legislative mandate for all materials, including paper, called extended producer responsibility (EPR).
EPR shifts financial responsibility for recycling from the existing network of producers and communities to the manufacturers alone, with no evidence that it can or would improve recycling rates, lower costs, or extend the life of materials any longer than it is already. In fact, recent experience – for example, the EPR program in British Columbia – suggests EPR leads to higher systemwide costs that get passed on to consumers with less net tonnage diverted from the waste stream.
EPR would take a wrecking ball to the market forces that drive the success of the U.S. paper recycling enterprise, and for no purpose. Unlike the other materials that EPR is supposed to address, paper is not toxic, it does not contribute to ocean and other surface water waste, and it doesn’t take long to degrade in the environment. Yet EPR would target paper products with the same mandates and fees as those other materials, disrupting the economics and overwhelming success of paper recycling.
Compared to the efficiency of established markets, repeated experience teaches us that artificial government mandates are, at best, a testament to confused objectives, unintended consequences, and wasted money and effort. EPR does nothing to make paper recycling more circular than it already is. It is the well-established paper recycling network that is already getting the job done, delivering proven environmental benefits, and making itself ever more circular from year to year.
Two Sides North America today released an engaging new infographic that shows why paper bags, because of their inherent renewable and recyclable attributes, are an attractive, practical and natural alternative to plastic bags.
Citing authoritative sources, this infographic addresses the growing concern about the overuse of plastic bags and in particular, their contribution to marine litter. For example, according to the World Resources institute, each year about 8 million metric tons of plastic litter ends up in the ocean, where it can harm fish and wildlife and, once it enters the food chain, threaten human health. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that several states have banned single-use plastic bags and hundreds of municipalities have banned or imposed fees on their use, and the Office of the Prime Minister has announced that Canada expects to ban all single-use plastics, including plastic bags, as early as 2021.
The infographic also highlights some of the key reasons why paper bags are a sustainable alternative.
“As all concerned strive to reduce unnecessary packaging as part of a circular, less wasteful economy, businesses and consumers can be confident that using paper bags is a responsible choice,” says Two Sides North America President Phil Riebel. “The raw material used for paper bags made in the U.S. and Canada comes from sustainably managed forests where trees are grown, harvested and regrown in accordance with responsible forest management practices, environmental regulations and globally recognized forest certification standards, and the U.S. and Canada are world leaders in paper recycling. That’s why paper bags are a natural choice.”
Download the new Two Sides new infographic here.
About Two Sides
Two Sides North America is an independent, non-profit organization, and is part of the Two Sides global network which includes more than 600 member companies across North America, South America, Europe, Australia and South Africa. Our member companies span the Graphic Communications and Paper-based Packaging value chain, including forestry, pulp, paper, paper-based packaging, chemicals and inks, pre-press, press, finishing, printing, publishing, envelopes and postal operations. For more information about Two Sides North America, visit us at www.twosidesna.org and follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
Contact Two Sides at: