Paper Has a Head Start

By Phil Riebel, Environmental Consultant to the Pulp & Paper Industry, RISI.

When made responsibly, it's difficult to find a more sustainable product than paper due to its unique features:

  • It is the most recycled product in the world.

  • It is based on a renewable resource - trees that can be managed responsibly to retain the environmental, social and economic benefits of forests.

  • It is produced using a high percentage of renewable biomass energy.

  • It can be re-used for many other applications.

  • It is relaxing to read, and simple to use.

  • It is more effective for learning and literacy.

Look around you. How many products have these environmental and social features? Most are based on non-renewable materials, have much lower recycling rates. But yet we are bombarded with slogans like "Go paperless - Go Green", "Paper kills trees", and other negative and misleading messages regarding paper and print. At a recent NHL hockey game I attended with my son I even saw an ad (on the big suspended screen) claiming that the use of recycled content tissue paper is saving forests and "nature". It essentially told 20,000 people that "using wood to make paper is bad"!

The Seven Sins of Greenwashing

As a starting point we should agree that all products have an environmental impact over their life-cycles and all products should be manufactured in the most sustainable way possible. With that in mind, less consumption is better for the planet, especially given dwindling resources and rising populations. However, communicating the environmental benefits and disadvantages of products needs to be done with the product life-cycle in mind, and it should not mislead people. It needs to be factual, verifiable and not exaggerated (as per environmental marketing guidelines) (1). Claiming that a product is "better for the environment" due to one feature only (i.e. recycled fiber), is considered one of the Seven Sins of Greenwashing (2).

The sustainable use of recycled fiber to make paper products is good practice. However, by making recycled a "gold" standard and talking about "saving trees" we are doing our industry a disfavor. Here are some key points again regarding recycled fiber use in paper (3):

  • Recycled fiber is based on wood fiber. Without the use of wood, recycled disappears.
  • Recycled fiber breaks down after 4-6 times of recycling, it becomes waste.

  • A minimum of 40% wood fiber is needed to make the global fiber cycle work.

  • Without wood, the production of paper ceases in a time period between 6 and 18 months depending on the paper grade, including toilet paper.

  • Over 80% of recovered paper in the world is used for carton and paperboard, only 6% in printing and writing grades.

The message people need to get is that the world needs a sustainable fiber cycle made up of well-managed forests and recycled paper. We need both to make all the various paper and board products used today. In fact, they will both continue to be the main source of fiber for papermaking for the next two decades and beyond (4). We need to keep our working forests and we need to manage them responsibly, or else they will eventually be replaced by shopping malls and highways because there is no incentive for landowners to keep them. Forest conservation today only covers 12% of the global forests (5). In other words, sustainable forest management and developing incentives to keep our forests is critical for our environment. Replacing forest products with products made from non-renewable materials that involve more intrusive land uses to extract (mining, oil extraction) is perhaps not a more sustainable choice over the long term.

Paper's Head Start

In the past two years, the positive messaging regarding the sustainability of paper and print has gained momentum.

Two Sides, a non-profit focused on telling the positive environmental story of paper and print has had good success and is present in 12 European countries and working on a start-up in the US. One of their success stories has been a campaign to convince major corporations against using misleading environmental messaging related to e-billing (i.e. the go paperless - go green message). The web site is worth a visit to view myths and facts about paper and print, as well as many case studies and resources for download.

Both Domtar and International Paper have launched initiatives to promote the sustainable features of paper and make the connection between paper and well-managed forests.

Here are a list of some other publications and web sites on this topic:

The tide may be slowly turning on the perception of paper and print. A stronger international voice led by organizations like Two Sides may be a logical next step, given that paper and print is everywhere and touches almost every person on the planet. This type of global network would strengthen the credibility, expertise and reach of a positive message.

In the end, it's not a question of paper vs other products (i.e. e-media, plastic) but rather a combination of products, produced in a way that continuously reduces overall impacts on the planet and meet our society's needs. However, paper does have a head-start on many other products due to its unique environmental features.


3.   Metafore. 2006. The Fibre Cycle Technical Document. Summary Report, March 2006. 14 p.
4.   Pöyry 2009. World Fibre Outlook up to 2025, 2009 edition, Volume 1, Executive Report (Confidential Report)

Phil Riebel is a senior sustainability advisor to the forest, paper and print sector. He has over 20 years of international experience acquired in senior management positions in industry and consulting, including VP of Environmental Affairs at UPM-Kymmene. Phil also owns and manages 200 acres of sustainable forest in Canada.

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