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?
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DAYTON, Ohio – April 27, 2023 – As U.S. consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of the products they use every day, there remains a wide gap between perception and reality when it comes to the sustainability of paper products – but the gap has narrowed over the past two years. Overall, 44% of consumers believe paper products are bad for the environment, down from 48% in 2021. This according to a new survey commissioned by Two Sides North America and conducted by global research firm Toluna.
“It’s great to see improvement in consumer attitudes about paper and the environment, but we need to accelerate this trend if paper products are to remain competitive in an ever-changing marketplace,” says Two Sides North America President Kathi Rowzie. “More and more consumers are factoring environmental impacts into their purchasing decisions, but all too often those decisions are based on longstanding myths, pop culture headlines and corporate greenwashing rather than facts,” she explains. “Everyone whose livelihood depends on paper has a role in changing this. As the world moves toward a more sustainable, circular economy, the paper and paper-based packaging industry has a great, fact-based environmental story to tell: The life cycle of paper is already circular.”
What’s happening to the size of U.S. forest area?
Paper use is often blamed for forest loss, and 55% of those surveyed believe U.S. forests are shrinking, an improvement over 2021, when 60% of consumers said they believe U.S. forest area is decreasing. The facts: U.S. forest area grew by 18 million acres between 1990 and 2020, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s most recent Global Forest Resources Assessment. That’s an area equivalent to 1,200 NFL football fields every day. Contrary to the popular belief that manufacturing and using paper destroys forests, the demand for sustainably sourced paper and paper-based packaging creates a powerful financial incentive for millions of private landowners not only to manage and harvest their land responsibly, but also to keep it forested rather than converting it to non-forest use or selling it for development, the leading cause of deforestation in the United States according to the U.S. Forest Service.
What percentage of paper is recycled?
Paper recycling in the United States is a hands down environmental success story, but most consumers don’t know it. According to the survey, only 12% of consumers know the U.S. recycling rate exceeds 60%, up from 11% in 2021. Four in 10 consumers believe the paper recycling rate is less than 30%. The facts: More than two-thirds (68%) of all paper and paper-based packaging in the U.S. is recycled, and more than 91% of corrugated cardboard is recycled according to the American Forest and Paper Association. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that paper is the most recycled material in the country, compared to plastics at 9%, glass at 25% and metals at 34%.
Is electronic communication more environmentally friendly than paper-based communication?
As companies continue to resort to unsubstantiated “go green, go paperless” marketing claims to help them cut costs, 68% of consumers surveyed believe that electronic communication is more environmentally friendly than print on paper, up from 67% in 2021. Clearly, consumers want to do the right things when it comes to the environment, but are often misled by corporate greenwashing that fails to acknowledge the environmental impacts of digital communication.
The facts: The EPA reports that the pulp and paper industry accounts for only 0.6% of total U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – which isn’t surprising since 64% of the energy needs at U.S. pulp and paper mills are met using renewable, carbon neutral biofuels, mostly biomass. In contrast, the rapidly expanding information communication technology (ICT) industry has a growing carbon footprint arising from GHGs released during all stages of the electronics life cycle. A recent meta-analysis (Freitag, Berners-Lee, et al, 2022) estimates the ICT industry is responsible for up to 3.9% of global GHG emissions and that those emissions will continue to increase without both regulatory and industrial intervention. Unlike the recycling success story of paper products, only 15% of the approximately 7 million metric tons of e-waste generated in the United States each year gets recycled, according to the 2020 Global E-waste Monitor. The rest is landfilled, burned or dumped, causing harm to both the environment and human health.
“The life cycle of paper products is circular by nature,” Rowzie explains. “The raw material used to make them is perpetually regrown, the energy used to manufacture them is generated using mostly renewable, carbon-neutral biofuel, and the circle is completed as used paper is recycled into new products at a higher rate than any other material. Even so, our survey shows that misconceptions about the sustainability of paper products are commonplace. It’s just these types of misconceptions that Two Sides is working to correct. We believe consumers have the right to make purchasing choices based on data and hard facts, free from pop mythology and greenwashing.”
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.
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
By Kathi Rowzie, President, Two Sides North America
You’ve no doubt seen the impassioned ENGO fundraising claims warning that “billions of trees are cut down each year to make paper products,” and as a result, “deforestation is accelerating at a rapid pace.” Their suggested solution to this “deforestation crisis and its climate impacts” is to eliminate the use of wood fiber to manufacture paper products – 50% by 2030 – and replace it with recycled content or so called “next generation” alternative fibers.
But as President John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” And the fact is that sustainably produced North American paper products are not a cause of deforestation, no matter what some ENGOs say or how many times they say it.
Deforestation is defined by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other credible environmental organizations as the permanent conversion of forestland to non-forest uses. Every five years, the UN FAO publishes its Global Forest Resources Assessment, a comprehensive report on the state of the world’s forests. Its most recent report states, “The rate of net forest loss decreased substantially over the period 1990–2020 due to a reduction in deforestation in some countries, plus increases in forest area in others through afforestation and the natural expansion of forests.” The UN FAO also reports that those areas of the world that consume the greatest amount of wood have the least amount of deforestation – areas like the United States and Canada.
Yes, deforestation remains a problem, particularly in the developing world due primarily to the conversion of forestland to agricultural crops for animal feed. But net forestland in the U.S. actually increased 18 million acres between 1990 and 2020, even in the face of deforestation driven by rapidly expanding urban development and climate change, and net forestland in Canada remained stable during the same period (UN FAO).
Thanks in great part to the sustainable forestry practices advocated by the paper and forest products industry, the annual increase in U.S. tree volume is roughly twice the amount that is harvested (US Forest Service, USFS). By law, every hectare of forestland that is commercially harvested on Canada’s public lands (94% of all Canadian forestland) must be reforested (Natural Resources Canada, NRCan). Only 0.2% of Canadian forestland (NRCan) and less than 2% of U.S. forestland (USFS) is harvested annually, and the vast majority of that harvest is used for non-paper purposes.
Recycling as much paper as possible is indeed a desirable environmental goal, and recycling is critical to a more sustainable, circular economy. In the U.S., 68% of paper and paper-based packaging gets recycled, and the recovery rate for corrugated cardboard stands at an amazing 91%. But paper can be recycled only five to seven times before its wood fibers become too weak to bond into new products, making the use of only recycled content a practical impossibility. If fresh wood fiber isn’t continuously added to the manufacturing stream, the supply of recycled fiber would quickly run out and paper production would cease.
Expanding the use non-wood fibers to meet the growing global demand for paper products, especially packaging, can be an environmentally sound option, and for some uses they make sense. But suggesting that wood fiber simply be replaced with non-wood alternatives as a one-size-fits-all solution to deforestation and climate change ignores both the science and economics of papermaking.
In North America, it is the consistent demand for responsibly sourced paper products that provides the economic incentive to keep land forested and sustainably managed, land that might otherwise be converted to non-forest uses. However, in countries where wood resources are scarce, such as China and India, non-wood fibers including purpose grown fibers and agricultural residues, have been effectively used in papermaking. Wood, agricultural crops and crop residues are all important sources of papermaking fiber. Which sources make the most environmental and economic sense are inherently driven by:
Those who genuinely want to solve the problem of deforestation and its climate change impacts need to stop following the “dictates of their passion” and focus on real world, fact-based solutions that will make a meaningful difference for our planet.
If you’ve been following Two Sides or other authoritative sources, you know that the paper products you use do not contribute in any major way to climate change. Why? Because most of the energy used to manufacture them is generated using renewable, carbon neutral biomass. But what does this really mean?
The life cycle of paper, like that of any other widely manufactured and used product, does involve the emission of carbon – the key element in most greenhouse gases. However, with paper, there’s a critical difference.
To put it simply, the carbon released from burning biomass does not contribute to climate change, while the carbon released from fossil fuel does.
Biomass, also called biogenic carbon, is carbon that is absorbed from the atmosphere and stored in trees and other vegetation through photosynthesis. When that biomass later decays in the forest or is burned – either in forest fires or as fuel in a paper mill – its carbon returns back to the atmosphere in an endless natural loop that continuously recycles the same carbon atoms (called the “terrestrial carbon cycle”). Consequently, no new carbon is added to the environment.
On the other hand, the carbon from fossil fuels originates from deposits that have been stored in the earth for tens of millions of years. When coal and oil are extracted from those deposits and burned for energy, “new” carbon from outside the terrestrial carbon cycle is added to the atmosphere. The result is a net increase in greenhouse gases. And that is what’s warming the climate.
In an interesting take on the difference between the two sources of carbon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture compares them to the relationship between landlords and tenants. Biogenic carbon emissions are like tenants who “stay only the duration of their short-term leases, and politely leave over time as the regenerating forest calls them back,” while fossil fuels are “carbon tenants who squat permanently in our home and change the balance we previously had.”
Think about it. Humans have been burning biomass – especially wood – as a primary source of heat for millennia. Yet, as paleoclimatologists have found, not until the industrial revolution, with its massive reliance on fossil fuels, have greenhouse gases begun to increase so dramatically in the atmosphere. Before the widespread use of fossil fuels, the maximum concentration of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) held steady at a maximum of around 280 parts per million (ppm). Since then, however, that concentration has climbed to over 500 ppm, and it continues to increase.
The work of the national and international agencies and bodies directly responsible for the study, regulation and accounting of greenhouse gases is based on the fundamental finding that fossil fuel carbon, not biogenic carbon, is the problem. Among these organizations are the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency, the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy, to name a few.
It follows then, that a biomass-based industry like papermaking, which uses and emits mostly biogenic carbon, is not a major contributor to climate change. In fact, that’s what the numbers show. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Natural Resources Canada report that the pulp and paper industry in their respective countries is responsible for only 0.5% and 1.2% of total annual CO2-e emissions. The IPCC states that over the course of a year, the CO2 emissions from the combustion/oxidation/decay of biomass are balanced by carbon uptake prior to harvest, so the net emission is zero. IPCC also states that when used to displace fossil fuels, wood-based fuels can provide sustained carbon beneﬁts and constitute a large [carbon] mitigation option.
It is true that over the life cycle of paper, some carbon is released as greenhouse gases other than CO2. For example, paper that decomposes in landfills releases methane. However, the more paper products are recycled, the less methane is emitted, and paper is recycled more than any other material in the United States. By reducing the amount of paper products going to landfills through recycling, U.S. greenhouse gases emissions were lowered by 155 million metric tons of CO2-e in 2018 – the equivalent of taking over 33 million cars off the road for an entire year, this according to the U.S. EPA.
The recent United Nations global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, brought the world’s leaders together again to try to reach agreement on further commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. High on the agenda was preserving the health of the world’s forests – a critical natural resource for absorbing these emissions.
With this heightened international attention on preventing deforestation, primarily in the developing world, now is a good time to remind ourselves that the North American forests that supply the wood fiber for our paper and packaging products are among the most sustainably managed in the world.
They are so well-managed, in fact, that our forests continue to be a net absorber of carbon. In the United States, sustainable forest management practices, the regeneration of forest area and modern harvesting practices resulted in a net sequestration of carbon every year from 1990 to 2019, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) reports that U.S. forests annually capture and store 14% of economy-wide carbon dioxide emissions. Natural Resources Canada reports that forestlands capture and store around 19% of all carbon dioxide equivalents emitted in the country.
The production of wood and paper products is a powerful economic engine and driving force in keeping North American lands forested. By providing a dependable market for responsibly grown fiber, the paper industry encourages landowners to manage their forestland instead of selling it for development or other non-forest uses. More than half (58%) of the forestland in the U.S. is privately owned and managed, mostly by millions of small landowners, and they are under no obligation to keep their lands forested. Without the economic incentive provided by the forest products industry, untold millions of acres of forestland would likely have been lost permanently to commercial land development – converted to building projects, strip malls or parking lots.
For proof, look no further than countries where there is little economic incentive to keep lands forested. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Global Forest Resources Assessment, those areas of the world that consume the least amount of wood have the greatest problem with the kind of deforestation that the Glasgow conferees were trying to address.
Compare that with North America’s forest products industry. While they were producing the wood and paper products that enrich the lives of consumers, net forest area in the U.S. grew by some 18 million acres between 1990 and 2020, according to the UN FAO, and Canada’s forest area of 857 million acres has been stable over the same period. By law, every acre of Canadian forest that is commercially harvested must be regenerated.
In the U.S., the net average annual increase in growing stock on timberland is about 25 billion cubic feet, according to the USFS, and forests in the U.S. annually grow nearly twice as much wood as is harvested. USFS also reports that tree harvesting in the U.S. occurs on less than 2% of forestland per year in contrast to the nearly 3% disturbed annually by natural events like insects, disease, and fire, and most of this harvested wood is used for non-paper purposes. Harvesting in Canada occurs on only 0.2% of forestlands, while 4.7% is disturbed by insects and 0.5% is disturbed by fire, this according to Natural Resources Canada.
The Glasgow summit also kicked off a discussion of the inherent advantages of bio-based materials – like paper and paper-based packaging– in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and their potential role in a more broad-based, circular bio-economy. The FAO released a report demonstrating how renewable wood-based products can help combat climate change and achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
According to Dr. E. Ashley Steel, Forest Statistics Expert at the UN FAO:
“There is strong evidence at the product level that wood products are associated with lower GHG emissions over their entire life cycle compared to products made from GHG-intensive and non-renewable materials. Wood and wood-based products are generally associated with lower fossil and process-based emissions when compared to non-wood products.”
The document left open for later study the extent to which paper and paper-based packaging may serve as substitutes for non-wood products in the search for those that contribute to the net reduction of greenhouse gases, but there’s little doubt that any product sourced from materials that are grown and regrown are better for combating climate change than the non-paper alternatives.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released updated projections about the effects of human activity on our planet, warning that inaction to immediately address climate risk will yield dire consequences. The IPCC’s conclusions and recommendations will no doubt be the subject of continuing debate, but there are three things that most people agree on: the climate is warming, humans play a role, and we need to do something about it.
However, without broad-based public understanding of how the environment works, there is an unfortunate tendency to believe that all manufacturing industries and processes must be part of the problem, a misconception that some in the ENGO community and the news media are only too happy to exploit. They push the thoroughly unscientific narrative that paper contributes massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere, a byproduct of tree harvesting, manufacturing processes and paper waste. Far from mitigating climate change, it’s a narrative that could stifle an industry that is, in reality, a part of the solution.
Mitigating climate change demands a common-sense approach that is grounded in sound science, embraces proven strategies, and invests in driving continuous improvement. This approach, in a nutshell, is why the North America paper and paper-based packaging industry is a climate mitigation leader.
Paper’s Carbon Footprint
A look across the life cycle of paper shows that its carbon footprint can be divided into three basic elements: carbon sequestration, greenhouse gas emissions and avoided emissions. Each of these elements is influenced by important characteristics that distinguish paper from other products: it’s made from a renewable resource that stores carbon, it’s manufactured using mostly renewable, carbon neutral energy, and it’s easily recyclable.
Sustainable Forestry and Carbon Sequestration
Sustainable forest management, the cornerstone of the North American paper and paper-based packaging industry, helps increase the ability of forests to sequester carbon while also protecting and conserving other forest values like soil, air and water quality, wildlife habitat and biodiversity. An infinitely renewable resource, healthy forests sequester carbon by capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and transforming it into biomass through photosynthesis. The carbon stored in forests helps to offset releases of CO2 into the atmosphere from sources like the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation (the permanent loss of trees).
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that sustainable forest management practices resulted in net carbon sequestration each year between 1990 and 2018. As reported in the agency’s Inventory of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions and Sinks, U.S. forests and wood products captured and stored roughly 12% of all carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions in 2018. CO2e is a measure of the global warming potential of all GHGs compared to CO2. The Canadian government reports that forestlands captured and stored around 19% of the country’s total CO2e emissions in 2018.
Planting new trees and improving forest health through thinning and prescribed burning are some of the ways to increase the uptake of forest carbon in the long run. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the perpetual cycle of harvesting and regenerating forests can also result in net carbon sequestration in products made from wood and in new forest growth. In its 2020 Global Forest Resources Assessment, the U.N Food and Agriculture Organization reported that net forest area in the U.S. increased by approximately 18 million acres between 1990 and 2020, while net forest area in Canada remained stable at around 857 million acres during those same years.
The Paper Industry and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The North American paper and paper-based packaging industry was among the first industries to take voluntary action to reduce GHG emissions. Between 2011 and 2019, the U.S. industry reduced greenhouse gas emissions from 44.2 million metric tons to 35.2 million metric tons or 20%, according to the US EPA. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) reports that between 2007 and 2017 the Canadian industry reduced GHG emissions from 22 million metric tons to 13.1 million metric tons or 40%.
These reductions are attributed to the predominant use of carbon-neutral, wood-based biofuel (which accounts on average for around 60% of energy generation at North American mills), the switch from coal and oil to less carbon intensive fuels such as natural gas, and investment in equipment and process enhancements that improved overall energy efficiency. Contrary to the claim that the North America paper and paper-based packaging industry is a major contributor to GHG emissions, EPA and NRCan data show that U.S. and Canadian producers account for only 0.5% of total GHGs in their respective countries. A continuing increase in the use of biomass energy at North American mills has the potential to reduce GHG emissions even further.
Some in the ENGO community argue that because biomass releases just as much CO2 in the atmosphere as fossil fuels, it isn’t really carbon neutral. But the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and other experts disagree. As DOE explains: “Burning biomass releases about the same amount of carbon dioxide as burning fossil fuels. However, fossil fuels release carbon dioxide captured by photosynthesis millions of years ago – an essentially “new” greenhouse gas. Biomass, on the other hand, releases carbon dioxide that is largely balanced by the carbon dioxide captured in its own growth.”
In other words, biomass contains carbon that was only recently removed from the atmosphere by photosynthesis, and that same carbon is returned to the atmosphere as part of the natural carbon cycle when it is burned to generate energy. This inherent property exists whether or not trees are regrown. Sustainable forest management practices help make sure that biofuel use does not outpace forest regrowth. The IPCC concludes that, “Regardless of how carbon neutrality is defined and calculated, the use of forest biomass produced under conditions where forest carbon stocks are stable or increasing always yields long-term mitigation benefits.”
Avoided Emissions: Paper’s Recycling Success Story
When paper products are sent to landfills, they release GHGs as they decompose. When they are recycled, these GHG emissions are avoided. That’s a significant environmental benefit when you consider that around two-thirds of all paper and paper-based packaging is recovered for recycling in the U.S. and Canada, more than plastics, glass and metals combined. When you single out corrugated cardboard, the recovery rate jumps to nearly 90%. The US EPA reports that the amount of paper and paper-based packaging that was recycled instead of going to landfills lowered U.S. GHG emissions by 155 million metric tons of CO2e in 2018, an amount equivalent to taking over 33 million cars off the road for an entire year.
The North American paper industry continues to invest billions of dollars in technology to increase the types of paper products that can be recycled as well as infrastructure investments that expand recycling capacity. For example, U.S. producers have announced or planned $4.5 billion in manufacturing infrastructure investments by 2023, more than $2.5 million per day. The industry also is focused on “recyclable by design” innovations that help brands, retailers and other end users develop fully recyclable paper packaging by eliminating non-recyclable elements.
Paper producers’ commitment to sustainable forest management, the use of renewable, carbon neutral energy, and strong support and investment in recycling has transformed the circularity of paper products from vision to reality, and will help to drive further GHG emission reductions.
For more facts about the sustainability of print, paper and paper-based packaging, click here.
April 14, 2021
TO: Popular Science
RE: Article titled “Modern paper use is wildly unsustainable” published April 6, 2021
To the editors:
Myths about the sustainability of the North American paper industry and its products are common media fodder in today’s world of sensationalized, headline-driven journalism. This time it was the turn of Popular Science to weave together a collection of standard anti-paper tropes into your “Modern paper use is wildly unsustainable” article.
Shouldn’t a publication dedicated to reporting on science resist the easy narrative, hold up a submission to the illuminating glow of real authoritative data and pick up the phone to ask industry scientists or a school of forestry if any of what the authors claim makes sense?
After all, paper is not only the most recycled material in North America. It is a material whose industry grows and regrows its own feedstock (wood fiber), derives most of the power to drive its processes from carbon neutral biofuel, and recycles more than 95% of the chemicals it uses to turn trees into pulp. This is not “wildly unsustainable.” This is a description of some of the world’s most sustainable products.
You always know what’s coming when an article begins with the classic, bait-and-switch doomed forests appeal. The hook is baited by painting a mental picture for the reader of the destruction of faraway endangered forests like those in Borneo and the Amazon, and the switch is the implication that these forests are the source of trees for North America’s paper and paper-based packaging products.
Paper products manufactured in the United States and Canada come from sustainably managed forests in North America, and these forests are not “disappearing.” Net forest area in the United States increased by approximately 18 million acres between 1990 and 2020, while Canada’s net forest area was stable between 1990 and 2020 at approximately 857 million acres.1
Each year, forests in North America grow significantly more wood than is harvested. In the United States, the net average annual increase in growing stock on timberland is about 25 billion cubic feet. Tree cutting and removal in the U.S. occurs on less than 2% of forestland per year in contrast to the nearly 3% disturbed annually by natural events like insects, disease, and fire.2 Harvesting occurs on 0.2% of Canada’s forestlands, while 4.7% is disturbed by insects and 0.5% is disturbed by fire.3
Contrary to the authors’ claim that manufacturing and using paper destroys forests, the demand for sustainably sourced paper and paper-based packaging creates a powerful financial incentive for landowners not only to manage and harvest their land responsibly, but also to keep it forested rather than converting it to non-forest uses, one of the real documented causes of forest loss.
The authors’ proposed solution to this non-problem of paper-caused forest loss is not the sure thing they claim it is: alternative fibers. Alternative fibers can be sustainably used in certain grades of paper and under certain circumstances, particularly in regions of the world like India and China where wood fiber is scarce. But their claim that “alternative materials have a fraction of the environmental impact” that tree fiber does is a gross exaggeration. While a comprehensive life cycle assessment is required to determine the full environmental impacts of alternative fiber papers, some broad conclusions can be drawn.
To begin with, alternative fibers are often grown like agricultural crops, which means there will be no trees on the landscapes where they are planted, in perpetuity. Forestlands that are harvested for tree fiber are replanted or allowed to grow back naturally. Also like agricultural crops, alternative fiber crops typically require more water and pesticides and generate more wastewater runoff than forests. And since, unlike trees, there is little residual biomass in alternative fibers, the process of converting them to paper must rely more on fossil fuels.
Moreover, global statistics on forests do not suggest that the use of alternative fiber paper products would protect forests for the long-term. The regions of the world that consume the least amount of wood are those that have the highest rates of deforestation.1
The authors are correct that paper products as a whole are recycled at over 60% in the United States. In fact, the figure is closer to 66%, and 70% in Canada, but even these statistics are only half the story. Some paper products, like corrugated boxes are recycled at rates of over 90%, demonstrating the potential for overall recycling rates to go even higher.4,5
The North American paper industry has invested tens of millions of dollars in capital-intensive recycling technology, as well as the collection and transportation systems to support it. As of the most recent survey, over 80% of all paper mills in the United States use recovered fiber as at least part of their fiber source. The investments are paying off as newer equipment and processes are allowing the paper mills to repulp post-consumer paper that was once unusable, including more of the paper cups and soiled pizza boxes mentioned by the authors.
Neither should your readers be concerned about “chlorine-based bleaches used to make paper whiter.” As the authors correctly noted, there are “restrictions on the kinds of bleach that paper companies can use,” but the story doesn’t end there. Over the last three decades, massive voluntary industry investment and stricter environmental regulations have combined to drive major advances in bleaching technology. Since the authors specifically refer to “modern” paper making, let’s be clear: today’s state-of-the art mill processes have dramatically reduced the chances that the substances referred to by the authors can be released into the environment.
Yes, by all means, we should retrain our brains. But let’s start by resisting the urge to cut and paste the same tired myths into sensational retread articles. Let’s start with a fresh look at the truly “modern” production and use of paper and build the training on a foundation of real-world data and science.
Two Sides North America
1UN Food and Agriculture Organizations, 2020
2 USDA Forest Services, 2019
3 Natural Resources Canada, 2020
4 American Forest and Paper Association, 2020
5 Forest Products Association of Canada, 2020
Earlier this month, the global forestry advisory body to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) released details on how sustainable forest management and forest products are well-positioned to drive a healthy, green and inclusive recovery as the world continues to face serious challenges related to COVID-19. In its statement, the Advisory Committee of Sustainable Forest-based Industries (ACSFI) referenced the essential role that forestry and forest products have played during the pandemic – and how they can help drive much-needed economic recovery.
ACSFI is a statutory body that guides FAO on issues concerning the sustainable consumption and production of forest products. It also provides a forum for dialogue between FAO and the private sector, with a view to identifying strategic actions that promote sustainable forest management. The United States and Canada are represented on the committee by American Forest and Paper Association President and CEO Heidi Brock and Forest Products Association of Canada CEO Derek Nighbor, respectively.
The ACSFI statement highlights that during the pandemic, forest products have played a crucial role in keeping people safe and healthy by providing personal protective equipment and other supplies and services, including hygiene and sanitary products, biomass for heating, ethanol for sanitizer, respirator paper, and packaging for food and other goods. In order to continue the uninterrupted supply of these products, the paper and forest products sector has been appropriately recognized in many parts of the world, including the United States and Canada, as an essential service.
As policy makers work to enable sustainable approaches to COVID-19 recovery and support industries that can help ensure a better future, the ACSFI advises that sustainable forest-based industries provide:
The paper and forest products industry and our workers across North America continue to embrace this call to action by delivering quality products with health and environmental benefits, practical solutions to lower our carbon footprint and family-supporting jobs for our people. The ACSFI global statement confirms that we have opportunities to do even more.
You can read the full ACSFI statement here.
Many banks, utilities, telecoms and other service providers continue to encourage (and sometimes force) their customers to switch from paper to electronic communications, using claims that electronic communication is “greener,” “saves trees” or “protects the planet” as justification. One can only conclude that the CEOs of these companies are either 1) misinformed about the inherent sustainability of print and paper, the rapidly expanding environmental footprint of digital communication or both, 2) trusting marketing teams who don’t bother to validate environmental claims or 3) seeking to save costs by ignoring established environmental marketing rules from the U.S. FTC and Canadian Standards Association that say marketers “should not make broad, unqualified environmental benefit claims like “green” and that “claims should be clear, prominent and specific.”
Growth of electronic devices and e-waste
There’s no arguing that the use of electronic devices has exploded over the last decade. According to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of Americans (81%) now own smartphones, up from just 35% in 2011. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults now own desktop or laptop computers, and roughly half now own tablets and e-readers. This boom has resulted in many advances that make our lives more efficient, productive and enjoyable. But it has also brought with it serious and increasing environmental, health and economic consequences.
According to the recently released Global E-waste Monitor (GEM) 2020, a record 53.6 million metric tons (Mt) of electronic waste was generated in 2019, up 21% in just five years. For perspective, last year’s e-waste weighed as much as 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2, enough to form a line 76 miles long. The GEM describes e-waste as discarded products with a battery or plug. Small electronic equipment, screens and monitors, small IT and telecommunication equipment comprised more than half of global e-waste last year. The U.S. and Canada collectively generated 7.7 Mt of electronic waste in 2019. That’s 46 lbs. per person, and nearly three times the worldwide per capita generation of 16 lbs.
The report also predicts global e-waste, will reach 74 Mt by 2030, almost a doubling of e-waste in just 16 years. This makes e-waste the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, fueled by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic devices, short device life cycles and few options for repair. Many people now see devices and appliances as ultimately disposable, simply discarding them when it’s time for an upgrade. Others may hold on to them, but are unable to find a cost-effective way to repair them.
Little e-waste is recycled
The GEM found that only 17.4% of e-waste was collected and recycled globally in 2019, with only 15% of e-waste in North America recycled. Most e-waste was either dumped or burned rather than being collected for recycling and reuse.
Numerous toxic and hazardous substances are found in electronic equipment and pose severe risk to the environment and human health when not handled in an environmentally sound manner. Recent research cited in the GEM found that unregulated e-waste is associated with increasing numbers of adverse health effects, from birth defects and altered neurodevelopment to DNA damage, adverse cardiovascular and respiratory effects and cancer.
E-waste also represents a huge economic loss. When electronic devices are simply thrown away, high-value, recoverable materials such as iron, copper and gold are thrown away with them. “If we cannot recycle electronic waste, we’re not taking back materials into the loop, which means we have to extract new raw materials,” says Vanessa Forti, the lead author of the GEM. It’s estimated that the value of raw materials in all global e-waste generated in 2019 equaled a staggering $57 billion US, more than the gross domestic product of most countries.
Electronic communication, energy consumption and climate change
The miniaturization of equipment and the “invisibility” of the infrastructures used leads many to underestimate the environmental footprint of digital technology. This phenomenon is reinforced by the widespread availability of services on the “cloud,” which makes the physical reality of use all the more imperceptible and leads to underestimating the direct environmental impacts of digital technology.
By 2023, global tech giant Cisco estimates that North America will have 345 million internet users (up from 328 million in 2018), and 5 billion networked devices/connections (up from 3 billion in 2018). The U.S. Department of Energy reports that U.S. data centers consumed an estimated 70 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) in 2014, representing about 1.8% of total U.S. electricity consumption. Based on current trend estimates, U.S. data centers are projected to consume approximately 73 billion kWh in 2020. This energy consumption does not include the energy required to build, power or recharge the devices.
According to The Shift Project, a carbon transition think tank, the energy consumption required for digital technologies is increasing 9% each year and the share of digital technology in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could double to 8% by 2025. The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory analyzed 113 information technology companies in 2014 and found that only 14% of the energy consumed was from renewable sources.
The contrasts between electronic and paper communications are well-defined
The magnitude of the negative impacts resulting from the use of electronic communication should be cause enough for companies to abandon their unverifiable greenwashing claims that going digital is better for the environment, but the comparison with paper-based communication should seal the deal for those that are committed to responsible marketing practices.
Since its inception, Two Sides has been working to end corporate greenwashing of digital communication. For more information about Two Sides’ Anti-greenwash Campaign, click here.
For more facts on electronic communication and other paper sustainability topics, click here.
Headquartered in Boston, Sappi North America (SNA) is an industry leader with more than 2,000 employees in the United States and Canada, and four mills with the capacity to produce 1.35 million metric tons of paper and packaging and 1.17 million metric tons of kraft, high-yield and dissolving pulp.
SNA has been a member of Two Sides since its beginning, and both organizations benefit greatly from this strong partnership. With its long-standing commitment to employee and product safety and its dedication to delivering products that meet customers’ needs for more sustainable solutions, SNA is an invaluable source of environmental expertise and thought leadership for Two Sides. With its global network and wide-ranging sustainability resources, Two Sides helps amplify Sappi’s voice in telling the great environmental story of print and paper products.
High on Sappi’s priority list is a continued commitment to productively engage in the circular economy through material waste reduction, product design for end of life, and carbon mitigation strategies. The company recently set ambitious new sustainability targets aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and has committed to the Science Based Targets initiative to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
As part of his broader role in pursuing those targets, SNA Director of Sustainability Sandy Taft, who also serves on the Two Sides Board of Directors, is keenly focused on how to describe and promote the role that the forest products industry can play in carbon sequestration strategies in North America and globally, and views Two Sides as a valuable resource.
“Two Sides is an important advocate for the paper industry and one that Sappi is glad to support,” Taft says. “As a current Two Sides board member, I’ve been impressed with the organization’s dedication to creating an effective dialogue about the power of paper paired with their fact-based approach. The materials they develop often take scientifically complex ideas and make them accessible and easily digestible. For example, their robust social media content is available to members, and we use it at Sappi to raise awareness with our followers,” he explains. “Two Sides is a valuable contributor to the global conversation about the sustainability of paper and paper-based packaging.”
Across its businesses, SNA is helping to accelerate the transition to a bio-based, circular economy. This includes unlocking the chemistry of trees to meet the challenges of a carbon-constrained world. “In a warming world with increasingly scarce resources, developing sustainable solutions in not just our responsibility, it is an opportunity that Sappi is embracing,” Taft says. “Trees are a renewable resource with enormous potential for broad-based advances that allow us to continue to sustainably deliver paper, packaging and other products that society needs while effectively addressing climate change.”
In addition to driving continuous improvement in the sustainability of its papermaking operations, Sappi is exploring alternative uses for wood fiber. By developing innovative new processes and biomaterials that extract more value from each tree, the company seeks to provide sustainable, low-carbon alternatives to materials commonly used today. For example, the company’s new Symbio bio-composite product aims to replace traditional materials in auto components, thus reducing total vehicle weight and significantly reducing the carbon footprint of vehicle emissions.
Sappi North America, Inc. is a subsidiary of Sappi Limited (JSE), a global company headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, with more than 12,000 employees and manufacturing operations on three continents in seven countries and customers in over 150 countries. For more information, visit www.sappi.com.