Printing has always been thought of as a detriment to the environment and anyone who relies on paper risks being accused of hurting trees. Paper has historically gotten a bad rap in society and the conversation around printing has usually been one-sided. We want to change that! In reality, paper plays a supportive role in the environment. Although it’s rarely spoken about, paper contributes to the sustainable and responsible use of natural resources and going ‘paperless’ may not be the ideal way to protect people and the environment. When we take a closer look at the facts surrounding paper and its production, it gives us the insight we need to make lasting differences in the world around us. It’s time to face the facts with five things you probably didn’t know about paper:
1. Paper is actually sustainable
At one point in its lifecycle, paper can be traced back to a tree, typically planted in a forest. When there is a healthy demand for paper, it doesn’t devastate forests but it encourages sustainable practices that protect and maintain forests in the long run.
Planted forests – the type that is used to produce paper – in Australia is relatively small compared to land used for wheat and barley, but through key initiatives, our planted forests are kept to some of the world’s highest standards.
* The Changing Face of Australia’s Forests – Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, 2010
Planted forests grow at a faster rate than regular forests and are more productive. They’re mostly useful as a preventative measure against soil degradation and erosion. When planted, forests can provide shelter to the environment, protecting crops and wildlife.
2. Paper is one of the most recycled products in the world
Paper is easily recyclable and is in fact, one of the most recycled products across the globe.
* ABS, 2012, Forestry and Fishing
Paper is mainly collected from trade and industry but also recycled from household use and offices. Since 1990, the recovery rate of paper has also increased – meaning more paper is being retrieved and recycled every year, and the benefits span across both the environment and the economy.
In Europe, more than 57 million tonnes of used paper is collected making it the most recycled product in the region. Thankfully, the rate of paper collection is continuing to increase (1) with technology and local collection systems improving.
Paper is predominantly used to produce more paper and the recovered fibres can be useful for newsprint and packaging up to five to seven times and in cases that need higher quality paper, small quantities of recycled fibres can be used. Recycling is so beneficial as it:
- Provides an extended use and supply of wood fibre.
- Reduces greenhouse gas emissions released when paper is decomposed or incinerated in landfills.
- Saves landfill space.
- Reduces energy required to produce paper products.
3. Paper has one of the lowest carbon footprints
Wood is a renewable resource that stores carbon, and paper itself is also one of the smallest emitters of carbon on the planet.
* World Resources Institute, 2009
Here’s a quick comparison of what that looks like:
- Printed mail accounts for 0.1% of household CO2 emissions, the equivalent of five cheeseburgers.
- Paper contributes less to deforestation than agriculture – compared to subsistence farming and commercial agriculture, which contributes to 62% of deforestation.
4. The alternatives aren’t always ‘greener’
In the argument against paper, electronic forms of communication are pitched as the most attractive alternative but electronic solutions are not always ‘greener’.
“One email with a 400k attachment sent to 20 people is equivalent to burning 100 light bulbs for 20 minutes…” – BBC 2009
Replacing paper with Information Communication Technology (ICT) products or services is not always the best trade-off. Responsibly sourced paper is a sustainable way to communicate in Australia and ultimately, any solution should be considered in light of its frequency, source of energy and disposal processes.
* KTH Centre for Sustainable Communications, 2009
The ICT sector is estimated to account for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2007, similar to the levels of emissions of the airline industry.
Paper still plays an irreplaceable role in education, art and society as a whole, and in reality both electronic and physical forms of communication affect the environment. The path to environmental sustainability is not as simple as favouring one form of communication over the other, but rather, both paper and ICT industries should continue to invest in the reduction of this impact. It’s not necessarily accurate to suggest one solution is ‘greener’.
5. Paper uses renewable energy
It’s underrated but the production and manufacturing of paper uses renewable and recyclable resources to ensure sustainable processes.
* Australasian Industry Paper Industry Association Ltd.
Although the industry is energy-intensive, it’s easily forgotten that:
- Over 96% of electricity used to power paper mills is produced on-site through a combination of heat and power (CHP), highly efficient systems with lower emissions compared to separate heat and power generation (2).
- Over half of the paper industry utilises bioenergy and in Europe, generates 20% of the biomass-based energy production (3).
Paperless communication is not going anywhere. When we work towards sustainability, the facts help paint the most accurate picture. Rather than framing electronic communication as the ultimate goal, the aim should be to equip the community to step closer towards the most environmentally friendly production and reuse of paper.