There’s always a more sustainable way - A commentary by Doreen Brumme

Almost every fifth tree industrially felled worldwide is processed into stationery and paper products. The already enormous and steadily growing demand for paper is significantly fuelling the chainsaws downing our trees. In 2019, per capita consumption amounted to 128 kg in Australia, 202 kg in the US and a whole 218 kg in Germany1. By deciding for or against eco-friendly alternatives to the paper conventionally produced from virgin fibre in stationery shops, supermarkets, hardware stores and pharmacy chains, every manufacturer, retailer and consumer is determining the future of our forests and, therefore, our own future on this planet.

What is paper, anyway?

Paper is a solid material made from plant fibre that is matted and glued before being pressed into a thin, smooth layer to create paper sheets. We use these for writing (writing paper), painting (art paper), printing (printer paper, magazines, books), cleaning (kitchen and toilet roll), crafts (coloured paper) and wrapping (gift wrap, wrapping paper).

How paper is produced

The fibre used today to make paper is mostly cellulose fibre from wood, ranging in length from mere millimetres to a few centimetres. Paper factories mill the wood in order to separate the cellulose fibre from the other plant parts, often using environmentally harmful chemicals that end up in the waste water. The cellulose is mixed with plenty of water and the fibre is torn apart. Depending on the intended use of the paper being produced, chemical additives are often blended with the cellulose pulp in order to change the look (bleaching, dyeing), stability (tear resistance) and feel (smoothness) of the paper. Spread over a fine sieve, the water drips from the pulp. The fibre produces an evenly matted material that is pressed to create paper sheets. The fine or rough surface, depending on the fibre thickness, is coated with adhesives based on starch and other substances, technically a form of impregnation2.

What environmental problems are caused by producing paper from virgin wood?

In addition to the cellulose fibre often imported from far away and the environmentally harmful chemicals sometimes applied, paper production also requires a great deal of water and energy to run the machines, boil the cellulose pulp, dry the paper and so on. The production of one tonne of paper results in around 0.6 tonnes of greenhouse gas (CO2) emissions – with more than 400 million tonnes of paper produced worldwide each year, this amounts to a whopping 240 million tonnes of CO2 annually. The consumption of wood as a resource, its transport around the world and the energy- and water-intensive production of paper itself all speak against the use of paper made from virgin wood fibre on environmental grounds. 

Paper made from hemp and the like – more eco-friendly alternatives to paper from virgin wood fibre

A look back at the history of paper making shows that up to the mid-19th century, our forefathers made most of the paper required worldwide from fast-growing fibre (bast, hemp, linen and straw) rather than slow-growing wood. Hemp paper has proven particularly suitable, as its longer fibres make it extremely robust and it is already quite light in colour by nature. We now know that hemp paper has strong recycling properties as well. But with increasing demand for paper, the paper industry preferred trees as a source of fibre. We could maintain our forests in the future if we switched to rapidly renewable hemp and the like for paper production. However, we need space to grow the necessary crop plants. And there is already keen competition for land in the agriculture and forestry, housing and transport sectors as well as for energy generation from renewables. 

Recycled paper – the most environmentally friendly alternative to paper from virgin wood fibre

 

Lots of trees could be left standing if recycled paper was produced from waste paper instead. However, waste paper cannot be recycled indefinitely and the process involved is not without its detractors – Quarks3 states that up to 25 cycles are possible but not every recycling method is free of chemicals. 

What can we do?

 

The answer to this question has to be: 

  • We need to be mindful of paper and be willing to use it sparingly and consciously. In our everyday lives, this may mean shifting to alternatives to paper: such as using cloth napkins instead of paper serviettes and dishcloths instead of kitchen roll, reducing paper in the office and working on data digitally rather than producing mountains of paper documents
  • Any paper actually required should be made from regionally produced waste paper fibre and, if necessary, locally grown, rapidly renewable fibre. Only virgin wood fibre obtained from regional sustainable forestry should end up in paper production
  • We should only buy and sell paper and stationery certified as environmentally friendly by reputable institutions, such as the PEFC Council (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes) and FSC® – Forest Stewardship Council®

About the author 

The freelance journalist on organic issues and #motherof4 Doreen Brumme blogs on doreenbrumme.de about how to enjoy a green lifestyle at work, in school and at home.

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