One of the largest industrial segments across the world, the pulp and paper industry, has had an immense effect on global forests. This segment produces products that include but are not limited to; office and catalog paper, glossy paper, tissue, and paper-based packaging. This uses over forty percent of all industrial wood traded globally, and the U.S. is one of the world’s largest paper consumers.
Coniferous and deciduous trees are primary pulp and paper sources; however companies do not only do logging in temperate regions where pine forests thrive, they harvest in tropical and boreal forests as well.
In 100 A.D., Chinese people used rags, hemp, grasses, and stone mortars to make the first paper products. It was a relatively simple process that employed easily sustainable agricultural resources. This exact method continued on through various cultures up until the 1800s, when the industrial revolution boomed and society was seeing higher literacy rates, thus creating a greater demand for paper that inevitably became a part of the environmental sustainability crisis we face today.
Does paper production cause deforestation?
Paper products are a crucial part of society, enabling broader literacy and cultural development. Across the globe, paper mills produce about four hundred million tons of paper per year, creating a lot of jobs but then again contributing to deforestation.
Forest practices associated with pulp and paper operations have shown shocking impacts on some of this world’s most ecologically valuable places and species.
The responsible pulp and paper operations bring a multitude of benefits to forests, local economies, and people, particularly those in rural areas. By their responsible practices, they have demonstrated leadership in forestry and plantation management as well as in clean manufacturing processes and recycled content. The United States paper consumers may play a key role in driving responsible forestry if they are conscientious in their paper choices by choosing to work with responsible printers and printer suppliers.
- Thirty-nine percent of the fibers used for making paper comes directly from recycled paper
- A majority of the remaining wood is obtained either through:
- Forest thinning that removes slow-growing or defective trees
- Utilization of lumber milling residues which consist of materials that otherwise would go unused
- Thirty-six percent of timber harvested in the United States of America is directly used to make paper and cardboard
- The amount of wood harvested from United States forests is much less than annual forest growth
- Land covered by forests in the United States increased by about four percent between 1997 and 2012, even though suburban life developed and expanded.
The paper industry has recently worked hard to protect its raw material sources with the option to use wood certified as coming from sustainable forests. Timber companies and landowners manage and harvest their forests in an effort to maintain forest productivity and health, protect water resources and biodiversity and preserve opportunities for hiking, fishing, hunting, and camping.
How do paper mills affect the environment?
The environmental impact is significant, which has led to, as stated above, changes in industry and behavior, both at the professional as well as at the personal level. With the use of modern technology with the printing press and the highly mechanized harvesting of wood, the disposable paper became relatively cheap, which in turn led to a very high level of consumption and an unnecessary amount of waste.
Currently, there has been a trend towards greater sustainability in the pulp and paper industry as it moves to significantly reduce clear-cutting, water use, fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and clean up any impact on local water supplies and air pollution. The industry has become much more environmentally aware over the past 50 years, which is a wonderful sign of growth in big businesses becoming more sustainably conscience and responsible.
The companies that use wood as their raw material, almost every single component is exhausted and made into something useful. Bark removed from logs is burned for energy that provides a biomass-based, renewable energy source. In simple terms, chemicals from the wood are regenerated through a complex sequence of processes, and wood byproducts are then able to be used to burn for energy. Residual ash from the wood-burning can then be used in construction materials and made into such things as concrete for road construction. In addition to energy production, these processes also yield many other co-products such as turpentine rosins used to make adhesives and rubbers, sulfonated lignin (the material used to make concrete, drilling mud, and drywall). Strange as it may sound, this process also makes imitation vanilla flavoring! Lastly, the residual fibers from recycled paper are used for other purposes, including mulch, animal bedding and soil amendments.
How much of the world’s forests are used to manufacture paper products?
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), globally, around forty percent of the annual industrial wood harvest is processed for paper and cardboard. This figure includes both industrial roundwood and sawmill byproducts, with the volume doubling since the 1960s.
Nigel Sizer of the World Resources Institute (WRI) was asked if he could rank the number one threat to global forestry. Without a pause, he responded, “The answer to that is very simple. By far the most significant threat to forests is the expansion of agriculture and agricultural commodities,” adding, “the expansion of soy and pasture land, palm oil production and other agricultural activities accounts for probably about 80 percent of tropical deforestation.”
Sizer went on to say, “Brazil has seen an 80 percent drop in deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon since 2004. That’s an extraordinary achievement.” Furthermore, it has been noted that the Brazilian government intends to bring that figure down to zero and to shift to a net re-greening of the country’s Amazon region moving forward.
This illustrates well that forest loss does not have to be “inevidable.” If the forests are managed responsibly with a long-term perspective, experts state that this resource will continue to thrive. According to the University of Michigan, since 1600, ninety percent of virgin forest in the lower forty-eight states have been cleared away, and threats to forestry remain today. Activities in the past may have decimated old-growth forests, and today, proper management and responsible forestry practices are as important here as anywhere else.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the paper industry employs over three hundred thousand people in the United States alone. This number does not account for the amount of those who work directly with the paper industry as their work in part is dependent upon the production of paper. The publishing industry (excluding the internet, of course) employs over five hundred thousand people. The trucking industry, which transports paper all over the country, employs nearly half a million people across the country. Paper is a big part of how we live.
Is there an alternative?
Until 1883, ninety percent of all the paper in the world back then was made directly with hemp fibers. It included everything from paper to money, news, print, maps, stocks, bonds, and books. A little-known fact is that the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was solely written on Dutch hemp paper.
Since the switch in 1883, the paper industry’s processes have been optimized for wood as the feedstock, so today, production costs are much higher for hemp than for paper from wood, unfortunately. Should the paper industry switch from wood to hemp for sourcing its cellulose fibers, the following benefits could be utilized to offset the costs.
- Hemp plants yield 3 to 4 times more usable fiber than forests, and hemp does not need any nasty pesticides or herbicides
- Hemp has a much faster crop yield. Taking about three to four months for hemp stalks to reach maturity, trees can take anywhere between twenty to eighty years! Not only does hemp grow at a much faster rate, but it also contains a very high level of cellulose. Quicker returns mean that hemp paper can be produced at a faster rate than paper made from wood production.
- Hemp paper does not require the use of toxic bleaching or as many chemicals as wood pulp because it can be whitened with hydrogen peroxide. This means that the use of hemp instead of wood for paper would provide significant environmental benefits by ending the creation of chlorine or dioxin runoff.
- Hemp paper can also be recycled up to eight times! In comparison to only three times for paper made from wood pulp
- Contributes to preserving biodiversity. Hemp’s use as a wood substitute has several factors in favor of its increased use. Especially for agricultural fibers such as hemp, the deforestation and destruction of old-growth forests (a major cause of the world’s decreasing supply of wild timber resources) would cease, eliminating one of today’s major ecological concerns.