Paper is an essential part of our daily lives. It’s used to wrap foods, print stories and package all manner of products. We may even still use it to send happy birthday greetings and “wish you were here” messages from our holidays.
It’s there from the moment we wake up and pour cereal from a cardboard box, to the moment we drift off to sleep with a book.
Yet we rarely pause to think about where our paper comes from.
Using less plastic has taken over our eco thoughts. But are our notebooks made from eco friendly paper? Is our plastic free toilet paper responsibly sourced?
Unlike plastic, paper comes from a renewable resource. Can’t we naturally assume that all paper is sustainable?
Nowadays there are so many paper products which claim to be green, recycled or eco friendly. But how green are they? With greenwashing now common, we need to look beyond the messaging on the packaging.
Is Paper an Environmental Problem?
According to the Environmental Paper Network, global consumption of paper has quadrupled in the last 50 years. Its use is now at an unsustainable level. In 2014, the world’s paper production reached 400 million tonnes. This figure is expected to increase by 90 million tonnes by 2020.
But is this really a problem? When a tree is cut down, another can grow in its place, and 20 to 35 years later the process is repeated.
But the paper industry is still problematic.
Paper production contributes to many environmental issues. These include air and water pollution, agricultural waste and greenhouse gas emissions. The displacement of rural and indigenous communities from the mass planting of trees is also a problem.
What’s more, the Environmental Paper Network says that between 2010 and 2015, forest areas decreased by 3.3 million hectares each year.
This figure doesn’t even take everything into account. It excludes the natural forests and wildlife areas destroyed to make way for timber plantations and planted forests.
That’s not to say that we should ditch paper altogether. There are many reasons that paper is good for the environment and for the economy.
Sustainably managed forests can function as natural carbon sinks. This helps to keep the air clean and preserve wildlife habitats. The paper industry also provides a regular income for farming communities around the globe. Plus, as paper can be recycled many times, it shouldn’t clog up landfill sites.
The problems occur when paper sourcing, producing and recycling isn’t done responsibly. So the answer is in eco friendly paper.
What Is Eco Friendly Paper?
From production to disposal, eco friendly paper has fewer negative effects on the environment. It also has a lower carbon footprint than traditional paper.
Non eco friendly paper is usually made from virgin wood pulp or fibres. No recycled or alternative fibres are used in the manufacturing process. That is, the paper comes directly from freshly cut trees.
Products branded as eco friendly are made entirely from recycled fibres. Or, they may be made from a blend of sustainably sourced virgin fibres and recycled fibres. These can be certified as eco friendly by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Paper can also be made from alternative materials such as cotton, sugar cane, hemp or linen. Bamboo is another popular paper fibre, but the debate on whether bamboo is sustainable or not rumbles on.
Plus, most of these materials aren’t grown on a commercial scale within Europe. So they’re imported from Asia, Africa, or South America.
Recycled eco friendly paper helps to reduce the global demand for wood. It helps to prevent wild forests from being turned into paper plantations on a mass scale.
The fibres used to make recycled paper products have already been processed. They’ve been been turned into paper before, meaning less pollution and lower energy requirements.
Recycled paper also helps to avoid paper waste from going to landfill. (Assuming that paper makes its way into recycling bins in the first place.)
The word ‘recycled’ automatically makes any product sound more eco friendly. But is recycled paper as green as it first appears?
Recycled Paper Fibres vs Virgin Paper Fibres: Which Come out Best?
Recycled paper solves some of the waste problem but it’s not the ultimate solution.
Tree plantations, like natural forests, are efficient carbon sinks. They help to capture greenhouse gasses and reduce pollution. With less demand for virgin fibres, there will be less demand for planted forests.
An increase in the use of recycled fibres could then lead to fewer trees being planted. An unwanted consequence could then be greater carbon damage to the environment.
Additionally, paper fibres can only be recycled five to seven times. Only using recycled fibres won’t produce enough paper to keep up with customer demand. When paper has been recycled too many times, the quality of the paper deteriorates. To maintain a consistent quality and strength, recycled fibres are often mixed with virgin fibres.
Currently, many companies claim to use recycled, sustainable paper in their products. But there are few regulations in place to manage recycled paper standards.
Recycling paper requires fewer resources than manufacturing paper for virgin fibres. But the process still uses large amounts of water and energy. Recycling plants are often powered by fossil fuels, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
There may be health implications too. Research suggests that recycled paper and paper mills contain more bacteria. Although unlikely to affect someone in good health, the level of bacteria is higher than in their non recycled counterparts.
It seems there’s little environmental advantage to using recycled paper over virgin fibres. If virgin fibres are sustainably sourced and recycled, they can be just as eco friendly.
What About FSC Certified Paper?
The FSC is an international non profit organisation. It’s backed by environmental charities such as Greenpeace, The Woodland Trust and WWF.
Their aim is to promote sustainable forestry for both environmental and social benefits. They operate a strict system which tracks timber through each stage of the supply chain.
FSC approved organisations, such as the Soil Association, inspect forests and supply chains. In the UK, FSC forests are managed by organisations such as Forestry England.
You can identify both virgin and recycled paper products that meet FSC standards by the ‘tick-tree’ logo. This logo certifies that a product has been sourced from sustainably managed forests. Or that it’s made from post consumer waste (recycled fibres).
There are three types of FSC labels:
- FSC 100% – 100% of the wood within the product comes from FSC certified forests.
- FSC Recycled – the wood or paper within the product comes from reused or reclaimed materials.
- FSC Mix – the wood within the product is sourced from recycled materials, FSC certified or controlled forests. Controlled forests do not mean that they’re FSC certified. But the wood in these products must still be responsibly sourced.
FSC certified products are widely available in the UK. As well as paper products, FSC logos can be found on many wooden products.
Garden furniture, household utensils and stationary can all be FSC certified. They’re stocked by many high street stores including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Co-Op, John Lewis, and M&S.
The Future of Eco Friendly Paper Production
Virgin paper is not the environmental demon that we thought it was. When virgin fibres are responsibly sourced, the end product may even be more eco friendly than one made from recycled materials.
Recycled paper does help to reduce waste, but it’s not a solution on its own. The best thing to do is look for FSC certified virgin papers blended with recycled materials.
If your local shop doesn’t stock FSC certified, eco friendly paper products then ask them to. Or vote with your wallet and shop elsewhere.
When buying paper products make sure you know which ones are compostable and biodegradable too – it’ll be much better in your compost bin than in landfill.
Paper production needs to be more sustainable. The more we demand sustainable paper products, the greater the supply we’ll have. And that deserves a congratulations card! (Made from eco friendly paper, obviously.)