Trees may be green—but paper isn't

The climate conscious are being conned by the paper industry

If you listened to Episode 6 with Hunter Bliss you know he’s on a mission to combat climate change with a weird and wonderful synthetic paper—stone paper. Made from 80% stone and 20% plastic, its carbon footprint is 70% lower than that of traditional wood pulp paper. Hunter thinks it could change the world.

There’s a problem, though: paper already won the war on plastic. Policy and attitude swiftly swore allegiance to its pages and packets and pellets. We indulge in its natural-ness, contentedly placing our loose, misshapen vegetables in its thin, crinkly womb, holding them tightly to our chest as we scurry past their plastic-wrapped cousins.

Simply put, we equate brown with green. Rather paradoxically, it means the 20% plastic content of stone paper is a more important figure than its 70% lower carbon footprint.

This wasn’t always the case. Paper has undergone something of an environmental facelift in the lifetime of your average millennial. From being scolded at school for wasting paper, we are now encouraged to green our homes and businesses with paper products, touted as the “natural”—and, synonymously, harmless—alternative to plastic. Everywhere, stores and businesses are ditching plastic for paper and applauded for their environmental awareness. It’s a trend that’s predicted to continue: the paper packaging industry is expected to grow 4% annually over the next five years.

Ironically enough, the plastic bag was invented by a Swedish engineer in 1959 to save the planet from paper bags. Concerned by the unsustainable nature of a single-use product that required deforestation, Stan Gustaf Thalin created the plastic bag for durability and reuse. 50-odd decades later plastic bags littered environments worldwide, cast aside after being used just once. Like a one-trick pony, the EU did what it always does in a crisis—clamp down. Some of the United States followed suit.

Heavy-duty plastic ‘bags for life’ became an acceptable option, and for a time common sense and science were in perfect alignment. Then the clamp became a ban, and just like that the single-use bags on offer at stores regressed 60 years to paper. This isn’t so much Ouroboros as a puppy chasing its tail.

At what point do we ask the question: Is the problem the material, or how we use it? The answer is of course complex, and unfortunately man has neither a history of understanding moral judgement (just ask God), nor an adequate track-record of applying it (just ask Wall Street).

Fortunately, though, whilst we grapple with that question, science can provide us with clear data about the materials we need to build a sustainable world.

Paper is not one of them.

Sustainability

Paper is often—falsely—referred to as a sustainable or renewable material. Pro-paper lobbies and organisations would have the public believe that unofficial forest certification programs and tree plantations will ensure a steady supply of timber at no cost to the environment.

The studies that have been done on the Forest Stewardship Council show that FSC-certifications positively impact what the Council calls “sustainable forestry”, the three pillars of which are biodiversity, social considerations and economic viability. One report, titled ‘The contribution of FSC certification to biodiversity in Finnish forests’, claims that biodiversity is positively impacted by FSC certification. But these studies only compare FSC-certified forests against uncertified forests used for logging. In other words, there is no data on how the biodiversity in FSC forests compares with wild forests.

Tree plantations are a more obvious source of concern for environmentalists, often heavily-criticised for creating a monoculture and destroying the area’s biodiversity. The plantations require ongoing human intervention, including fertilisation, and large amounts of herbicides and pesticides. In many countries around the world they also impede the ability of indigenous people to feed themselves.

But even planting them is a dangerous act in itself, as more often than not land has to be cleared for plantations, thus releasing carbon from whatever plants had taken root there. Grasslands, for example, already store up 30% of the world’s carbon but misguided reforestation advice to solve climate change would swap out the grasslands for trees. Say hello to an instant 30% increase of carbon in the atmosphere.

Carbon

Most forests sequester carbon by capturing carbon dioxide from the air and producing biomass—and oxygen. The Amazon is often referred to as the world’s lungs for this reason. We depend on the natural world to fight with us against climate change. Oceans and forests and peatlands act as an important line of defence against climate change, but damage caused by industries severely impacts their natural processes. The amount of carbon sequestered by rainforests has fallen by a third compared to the 1990s. Scientists now estimate that the Amazon could become a source of carbon as early as the next decade due to damage done by the logging and agricultural industries.

Deforestation

Deforestation occurs at a rate of one football field per second, with 35% of harvested trees going to the paper industry. If we continue, we are on track to run out of forests by 2099.

Between 1990 and 2015, the EU supposedly reversed deforestation on its soil, where forests account for 38% of land surface, by focusing on rewilding and tree plantations. However, a study released in July 2020 showed that deforestation is once again on the rise in the EU. Satellite data showed a 49% increase in the harvested forest area and a 69% increase in biomass loss for the period of 2016–2018 relative to 2011–2015.

Corruption fuels deforestation on resource-rich continents. Dirty politicians strike deals with private interest groups to line their pockets with illegal cash. Less than 10% of rainforests remain on the Malaysian state of Sarawak after government-approved logging destroyed the land and displaced thousands of indigenous people.

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Recyclability

The rate of paper recycling worldwide varies greatly, but the EU comes out on top recycling 72% of paper. Whilst this is a great achievement, it seems bizarre that so much energy and resources have gone into improving the recycling rate of the one material that can never be 100% recycled.

Unlike metals and plastic, the fibres in paper degrade every time its recycled, meaning paper can only be recycled just 5–7 times. The result is the paper cycle will always require the injection of virgin pulp, making any model of complete circularity impossible.

Energy

The pulp and paper industry is the fifth largest consumer of energy, accounting for 4% of the world’s energy use. It also uses more water to produce a ton of product than any other industry. That equates to roughly 10 litres per one sheet of A4 page. To put that into context, the average paper consumption is 55kg per person globally.

Mills are so energy-intensive it is often more cost effective to build their own power plant; mashing trees and blow-drying millions of paper sheets is no small affair. Many of these plants are powered by burning biomass, the residue of unwanted bits of tree collected in the pulping process. Biomass sounds friendlier than oil but a study done by the European Environmental Paper Network found the burning of biomass to account for over 40% of the industry’s environmental impact.

Pollution

Pulp and paper is the third largest industrial polluter to air, water, and land in the United States, and studies show that it releases well over 100 million kg of toxic pollution each year.

In 2015, a study found the industry to be the most toxic polluter of water. The study measured the toxic weighted pound equivalent (TWPE) of major industries. The TWPE is the mass of a pollutant or chemical discharged that accounts for its relative toxicity. The pulp and paper sector was ranked first in the amount of TWPE discharged to water—despite sucking up to 10% of some nation’s freshwater.

This wastewater, filled with the necessary chemicals like chlorine to treat and bleach the paper, is discharged as effluent into waterways. In Canada, for example, this effluent third source of lead emissions to water. Such toxins harm the surrounding eco-systems before eventually working their way into the food chain.

Paper recycling is particularly terrible for waterways, producing a waste aptly named “sludge”. Caused by the de-inking process, recycling produces more than 7 million tonnes of sludge annually in the EU alone. That’s 70% of the 11 million tonnes of solid waste produced by the paper industry every year.

Emissions

In 2017, land use changes, mostly deforestation, contributed four billion tonnes of CO2 emissions to the global total of 41 billion tonnes of CO2. We could instantly cut our annual emissions by 10% if we stopped cutting down trees.

Figures on the industry’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are difficult to find thanks to the deliberate opacity of methods employed by researchers. One particular trick is to study the emissions produced by paper mills and ignore both the loss of carbon sequestering and the emissions produced by wastepaper.

To combat this, the European Environmental Paper Network commissioned a study in 2013 to assess the climate impact of paper consumption. The study was an analysis of over 20 carbon footprint studies that analysed a range of paper products and paper production systems. It found that previous research on the topic had “omitted key stages of paper’s life cycle and thereby under-estimated its impact on the global climate.”

For example, the study found that over 11% of paper’s environmental impact is due to impacting forests, and a further 10% caused by the landfilling of paper, which produces a dangerous quantity of methane.

By taking this full life-cycle of paper into consideration the study estimates that paper accounts for the equivalent of more than 7% of GHG emissions. That’s far higher than the aviation industry.

In particular, the study advised that short lifecycle paper products intensify the carbon impact of paper: “An efficient way for society to help mitigate climate change is to reduce low utility uses of paper, such as ‘throw away’ and ‘disposable’ products.”

The world did not take heed. In 2015, Pulp and Paper International found that 55% of paper products consumed worldwide are for wrapping and packaging.

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Greenwashing

That number must only be on the rise. Today, the easiest way for a business to claim eco credentials is to swaddle its products in paper, and a generation crushed by what seems like an endless cycle of bad news rushes to support its fellow climate champions. It was such an easy mistake to make; oil was meant to be the big, bad wolf.

Unsurprisingly, there’s an organisation behind the global attitude towards paper. Launched in 2008, Two Sides is a non-profit set up by many (unnamed) members of the paper supply chain to promote its use. Two Sides “is telling the sustainability story of print, paper and paper-based packaging. We tackle the relevant environmental and social issues head-on with factual, authoritative information that exposes the myths, explains our industry’s true sustainability and gives stakeholders a solid foundation for making well-informed decisions about the use of print and paper products.”

Some of their “authoritative information” includes:

  • “58% of the European pulp and paper industry’s energy consumption comes from renewable biomass”

  • “European forests have been growing by an area equivalent to 1500 football pitches every day”

  • “Paper production is dependent on water, yet relatively little is consumed”

Globalisation

We are trying to paper over cracks rent by decades—centuries—of abuse. The situation is reminiscent of when consumers became conscious of the climate impact of animal agriculture; demand for almond milk rocketed and huge swathes of rainforest were hacked down to make space for almond plantations. Something similar happened with avocados. Bamboo monocultures are spreading like wildfire—as bamboo does—and concurrently everyone is selling bamboo toothbrushes to save the planet.

Ultimately, there is no quick fix to climate change in a globalised world. Europe can boast its green credentials until it’s blue in the face, but that doesn’t change the fact that industrial nations on the other side of the planet are the world’s factories. We can protect our forests vehemently but it won’t mean a thing if our books are Made in China (which they all are).

We have an economy built on exploitation, and cannot expect to solve climate change whilst benefiting from low-cost supply chains. Powerful economies fatten themselves on their neighbour’s resources, eating away at the possibility of democracy, only to point their sticky fingers in horror at corruption and crime. We are in control for as long as they are in need; in a free market, we benefit, terribly.

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