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Five myths busted: paper’s place in a sustainable future

Would you like to go paperless? In today’s world, the onus is increasingly on the consumer to be aware of their carbon footprint and actively take steps to lower it. By moving your paper bank statements online, say banking corporations like Santander, you are doing your part to work towards a more sustainable future.

But how much truth is in these claims? The world of paper sustainability is fraught with myth and mystery. It is easy to conjure imagery of ragged forests destroyed to create the world’s paper, but the reality is much different.

Solopress has over 20 years’ experience working in the print industry, providing sustainable, eco friendly printing options, and it has partnered with environmental non profit Two Sides to help dispel some of the most common myths surrounding paper production and consumption.

Key findings:

  • The paper industry contributes just 0.8% to Europe’s total greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 4.8% from the metal industry and 5.6% from non metallic mineral products.

  • Paper production is not decimating forests – in fact, Europe’s forests grew at a rate of 1500 football pitches each day between 1995 and 2020.

  • Some 93% of the water intake used in paper production is returned to the environment.

  • The average person’s yearly paper consumption emits just 5.47% of CO2 compared to the average person’s yearly mileage in their car.

  • Paper is highly recycled – in Europe, it is reused an average of 3.8 times, and 56% of the fibrous raw materials used in Europe’s paper industry come from paper for recycling.

Myth: You must switch to paperless communications to have a positive impact on the planet

On the surface, it is easy to assume paper communications have a far larger impact on the planet than paperless. The overall environmental impact of paper communication, however, depends on how the paper is used and reused.

In many cases, the actual environmental effects of electronic communication are understated. The European Commission noted in 2020 that the ICT industry accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions (the equivalent of all the world’s air traffic). The e-waste created by this industry has climbed by 21% in the past five years, and the resources required to manage the world’s e-comms – such as servers and power generators – are non-renewable and difficult to recycle.

If we are to consider the longer term impacts of both methods of communication, paper is both renewable and recyclable. After engagement with Two Sides, over 750 of the world’s largest organisations have removed misleading statements stating that digital communications are better for the environment.

Myth: Paper production is a huge contributor to CO2 emissions

According to the European Environment Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the paper, pulp, and print sector is one of the lowest emitting industrial sectors. In fact, businesses operating in these areas are responsible for just 0.8% of Europe’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Europe’s metal and mineral industries are much more significant contributors to the continent’s greenhouse emissions – the non metallic mineral product industries account for 5.6% of overall emissions, whilst basic metal industries contribute 4.8%. So, whilst paper production is undoubtedly a contributor to CO2 emissions, the extent of this contribution is often overstated.

Myth: Paper production is destroying our forests

Wood fibre and pulp, the raw materials used to create paper, are harvested from trees, leading to the common misconception that paper production is decimating the world’s forests. However, this is not the case. Across Europe, almost all primary forests are protected, meaning that the cycle of planting, growing, and logging is carefully controlled.

In reality, forests across Europe are growing – between 2005 and 2020, European forests grew by an amount of 1500 football pitches each day. Plus, only 13% of the world’s wood harvest is used for manufacturing paper – the vast majority is used for fuel, furniture and other industries.

(Editor’s note: The paper industry is also the largest planter of new trees globally.)

Myth: Paper production wastes huge amounts of water

Water is a necessary ingredient in the production of paper, although the amount used has been reduced massively in recent times. In earlier years, excessive amounts of water were often used to make paper, but modern advancements to the papermaking process have cut this figure down significantly.

Since the 1990s, the average water intake per tonne of paper has decreased by 47%. Furthermore, most of the total intake used in the process is returned to the environment – 93% of the intake is reused in paper mills, before being treated and returned to source.

This is again attributable to new developments in the production cycle – updates to the filtration, sedimentation, flotation, and biological treatment processes have helped enable paper manufacturers to return even more water to the environment.

Myth: You can’t use paper in your day to day life without hurting the planet

Almost everything we do contributes to our carbon footprint. The simple truth is that the average person’s paper use is far less damaging to the planet than many other facets of daily life. According to FAO’s Yearbook of Forest Products, the average person living in a European country uses an average of 119 kg of paper each year.

An estimate from Eurograph suggests that producing and consuming one tonne of paper produces roughly 616 kg of CO2. If we use this figure as a benchmark, one person’s average yearly consumption of paper (119 kg) will produce 73 kg of CO2. Such a figure is equivalent to driving a standard car for 372 miles. Meanwhile, the average UK driver covers 6800 yearly miles in their car.

The average person’s yearly paper consumption therefore creates just 5.47% of the CO2 as their yearly mileage, indicating just how little of an impact your paper consumption has in relation to your driving.

Glen Eckett, head of marketing at Solopress, commented: ‘With so many businesses and corporations advocating for a paperless future, it seems only right to dispel some of the myths that have proliferated about the paper industry. Paper is one of the world’s most recycled products, and the production and consumption processes for paper are much more environmentally friendly than news coverage would have you believe. There is a place for both paper and digital communications going forward.’


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