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Paper’s Carbon Footprint

Posted by Clara Moses on Jan 27, 2020 4:31:59 PM

It was not so long ago that deforestation was a hot topic among environmentalists, especially in regard to the print industry. However, because forest product companies are in the business of growing and harvesting trees, reforestation is just as, if not more, important to them as it is to anyone else. Timber companies usually replant a new tree for each one they cut down, especially in North America.

In fact, there are 20% more trees in the U.S. today than there were on the first Earth Day celebration more than 40 years ago.

According to ChoosePrint.org, nearly all the wood used in paper production comes from tree farms, where acres of trees are grown specifically to be used as a renewable crop. Also, based on industry averages, only one-third of paper made in the U.S. even comes from freshly cut trees. The other two thirds are made from waste products, which includes wood chips, sawmill scraps, and previously recycled paper. So, these days, environmentalists are more concerned about climate change and plastic pollution than deforestation. Such concerns have led to many individuals and companies examining the size of their carbon footprints.

What Is a “Carbon Footprint?”

A carbon footprint is the overall amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated by all the energy and materials consumed by an individual, household, organization, or industry. The biggest human contribution to GHG emissions is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, gasoline, and natural gas. Therefore, daily activities such as commuting, heating/cooling the buildings we’re in, and running appliances make up the biggest part of most individuals’ carbon footprints. Our food (particularly factory farmed meat) and clothing (especially fast fashion items) also play notable roles.

Comparing Footprints

Because of past bad practices that led to deforestation, the carbon footprint of the print industry and our use of paper in society as a whole is often questioned as well. When examining statistics, however, the size of this particular footprint is shockingly small. According to Two Sides North America, the contribution of the pulp, paper and printing industries to the global greenhouse gas inventory is about 1%. Let’s compare this to some of the big GHG contenders we discussed earlier. The transportation industry is responsible for about 15% of the global greenhouse gas inventory and another sector referred to as “energy supply” (coal mining, fossil fuel extraction, etc.) comes in at 13%. A particularly interesting comparison to make is that of the ICT (computing and digital communications and technologies) sector, whose GHG contribution is almost at 6%.

Despite the wasteful reputation that paper has, realistically it’s made from a renewable resource that stores carbon and releases oxygen. Plus, it’s compostable and recyclable. In North America, paper is actually recycled more than any other commodity. Now, it’s even manufactured using mostly renewable energy including biomass, biogas and hydroelectricity. This can’t be said for all the materials that go into making reusable, digital alternatives to paper products.

Plastic’s Role in the Digital Age

Even with all the attention on plastics killing ocean life, people often overlook how much simply making plastic (which is often used in the production of digital devices) negatively impacts the environment. In truth, plastic is just a form of fossil fuel. On top of the mining, processing and transporting of the resources used to make digital devices, we also have to consider how often they end up inappropriately disposed of in landfills. Not to mention the energy we use in order to provide enough internet, electricity, and cell service to run all of them. We say all this, not to demonize digital media, but to show that there are both green pros and cons to most industries.

Don’t Get Greenwashed!

Speaking of the word green, be careful not to get “greenwashed.” Many companies across all industries claim to have various “eco-friendly” practices in order to increase sales of their products and improve their reputations, but not all of them are actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact. Essentially, beware those who are loud about being green without providing any evidence that they actually are.

That being said, we’re ready to back up what we’ve been saying. First of all, according to the Two Sides article cited earlier, greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. pulp and paper industry dropped 15% between 2011 and 2016 due to improved energy efficiency and increased use of less carbon-intensive fossil fuels and carbon-neutral biomass-based energy sources. In 2014, 67% of U.S. pulp and paper mills’ energy needs were provided by renewable biomass and fuels.

Bear in mind that greenwashing even happens within the recycling industry. In order to make post-consumer pulp, ink must first be removed from the used paper. This industrial process of detaching ink from paper fibers is called deinking and is done using a combination of mechanical action and chemical means. Therefore, although post-consumer paper is a type of recycled paper that’s often lauded for being green, the creation and transportation of it emits carbon and pollution just like most other manufactured products.

However, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, compared to virgin materials, recycled pulp typically requires less energy to process into paper products. Most of the energy consumed in creating paper products is in the pulping process, which involves separating fibers from wood or recycled inputs. Pulping can either be done mechanically or chemically, but the Kraft chemical pulping process accounts for the majority of U.S. pulp production. Processing wood through the Kraft chemical pulping process requires 10 to 12 million British thermal units (Btu) per ton while processing recycled pulps requires about 1 to 4 million Btu per ton. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries estimates the energy saved from using recycled material versus virgin materials is as high as 68%.

Post-Consumer Paper

Post-consumer papers are produced using waste that comes directly out of our home and office recycling bins. Two inherent print quality concerns regarding papers made with post-consumer waste (PCW) are cracking and picking because of the weakened fiber of the base stock.

If your print project requires a high volume of ink and you would like to use recycled paper, it’s best to use stocks that are made with a combination of virgin pulp and PCW. We recommend 10% PCW for coated papers and 30% PCW for uncoated (of course, some 100% PCW uncoated paper exceptions apply). Paper has historically been collected for reuse in the production of lower grade paper products, such as corrugated paper board and industrial grade paper towels. The ability to use recycled paper pulp to produce paper of a grade sufficient to make printing and writing paper relies on advanced deinking technology that has been in use for around 30 years. With all this being said, we’re not trying to dissuade you from using post-consumer paper, we’re just trying to raise awareness around the downsides of using it for high-end commercial print projects that require heavy ink coverage.

Recycled Paper That Rocks

Again, if you’d like to use recycled paper, it would be better, from a quality standpoint, to use either paper that is made from a low percentage of post-consumer pulp mixed with virgin pulp or paper made from pre-consumer waste. Pre-consumer paper consists of material that was discarded before it was ready for use, such as scraps and trimmings from a previous manufacturing process. Basically, the stuff that ends up on the factory floor is repurposed into something new rather than trashed. This means pre-consumer materials never had to go to a deinking plant before becoming new sheets of recycled paper. So, although many consider post-consumer recycled content to have greater eco-benefits than pre-consumer recycled content, it is still a greener choice than using 100% virgin paper and it is better for professional print projects from a quality standpoint.

In conclusion, cutting back on the amount of paper waste you produce and ensuring that you recycle as much as possible are valid aspects of living more sustainably. However, attempting to go entirely paperless or using exclusively recycled paper will realistically only reduce your carbon footprint by a small amount. Using recycled paper in commercial printing is still an option, just be aware the quality issues that may arise. There are so many pieces to the environmentalism puzzle, which is why it’s important that every industry, company, household, and individual considers the various changes they can make that will move society towards a more sustainable future as a whole. This is an important part of repairing our environment not only for us, but also for the generations to come.

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