sustainable business

Good News, Bad News: Paper’s Environmental Impact

Carolyn McMaster | August 4, 2011

As marketers, we’re acutely aware of paper use—we handle all kinds of print projects for clients, and paper appears in nearly every aspect of modern life, in packaging, personal and home products, and so on. I even own a hat made of paper (recycled).

The bad news is, paper use is on the rise globally, and North Americans use more of it per person than anybody else. The good news is, per capita use in North America is on the decline, and we’re seeing more use of recycled content and production methods that don’t use harmful chemicals.

The Environmental Paper Network (EPN) chronicles every aspect of paper production and use in its new report, State of the Paper Industry 2011. The report, aimed at policy makers, the paper and forestry industries, and large paper users, shows why changing the ways we produce and use paper is one of the best opportunities we have to reduce environmental damage.

Much of the progress is due to concerted action by the paper industry itself and watchdog and certification groups, along with demand by users such as designers (who were on board early), the packaging industry (which came later to the party, but recently has started to make a big impact), and big companies’ environmental procurement policies. Pressure on our forests is growing, despite the prevalence of digital media, but more forests are being managed sustainably or even designated off-limits.

The EPN set the baseline for statistics with it’s first report in 2007. Here are a few quick stats from this year’s report:

  • Paper accounted for 16% of waste in North American landfills in 2009, down from 26 percent in 2005.
  • The United States recycled or reused 63 percent of paper in 2009, compared with 46 percent in 2000.
  • The average North American consumed more than 500 pounds of paper per person, per year in 2010; the average European consumed just under 400 pounds a year. World average is 120 pounds per person.
  • From 2005 to 2009, the volume of paper in U.S. landfills shrank by 16 million tons to 26 million tons. That’s the equivalent of a line of trash barges almost 400 miles long.
  • In 2009, China surpassed North America in overall paper use.
  • As of July 2011, there were 791 available papers certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (the FSC provides the only certification that the EPN and environmentalists recognize as legitimate). The EPN designated only 121 papers as environmentally superior in 2010, as evaluated by its Paper Steps project.

The EPN makes a number of recommendations for making more progress, which boil down to: use less paper, and when you must, use recycled paper made with low-impact processes. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to find papers with 100 percent recycled content; many are just as handsome as their environmentally unfriendly counterparts. Good recycled papers are available through most printers and at big box stores (I’ve found Staples has the best options for everyday office use).


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