It’s a myth that the paper industry causes deforestation. In fact, for every tree cut down to make timber or paper products, three or four are planted in its place. The world’s forested surface is actually increasing by 340,000 hectares a year. Deforestation is occurring mainly in the tropics, for reasons completely unrelated to paper. The main causes of deforestation are agriculture and domestic fuel use, which account for around half of all trees cut down worldwide.
There are around 140 million hectares of farmed trees around the world. Each of those trees spends its life gobbling up the CO2 by-products of fossil fuel use, storing the carbon and releasing vital oxygen. And products made from trees, like timber and paper, lock away that captured carbon for the lifetime of the product.
Making paper is a large-scale process and might be expected to have some serious environmental impacts. But it’s far less resource-intensive than many people think. Innovations in technology are delivering improvements all the time in areas like energy and water consumption and the development of safer chemical processes.
Since 1990, energy consumption per tonne of paper produced has gone down by 21% internationally. Greenhouse gas emissions per tonne of paper have reduced by 22%, and water consumption has reduced by 63%.
Today the paper industry is one of the biggest users of renewable, low carbon energy. In Australia, a third of the energy used to make paper comes from renewable energy sources. In Europe the figure is around 50%.
Papermaking does use large quantities of water, which well-managed mills take from rivers and lakes, purify and then recycle again and again within the mill. At the end of its usefulness, this water is thoroughly treated before being returned to the waterways – very often cleaner than when it went in.
One of the reasons paper is such a sustainable product is that it’s fully recyclable. Around 50% of paper is now recovered and reused around the world, dramatically reducing the amount of paper going to landfill or being incinerated.
Paper recycling is an important sustainable practice because it reuses a readily available raw material. However, whether as a consumer you should choose recycled or virgin-pulp paper on environmental grounds is far from clear-cut. It largely comes down to the individual practices, energy sources and de-inking processes of the mills and pulp manufacturers making it.
Whether it’s an email, a DM piece, a TV ad or a billboard, any communication has its environmental impacts. Which medium has the least impact is extremely difficult to determine. To gain an accurate picture, you need to lookat the raw materials it’s made from, the manufacturing process, energy use and full life cycle.
Many people think of emails and websites as having a small environmental footprint. But they wouldn’t exist without computers, and computers have significant environmental impacts. They contain non-renewable plastics, toxic chemicals and metals. The amount of energy used by the consumer electronics sector is increasing rapidly, much of it fossil fuel-generated. And the disposal of electronic waste is becoming a huge problem around the world.
Compare these factors with the natural sources and sustainable practices of the paper industry, and you can see why there’s no straightforward answer. The best you can do is plan your campaigns carefully, be as targeted as possible and choose your paper wisely.