Demystifying the myths surrounding paper

By 18 Jul 2018

When it comes to the environment, paper and paper products tend to get undue blame. Arjun Dewan clears the air surrounding the impact of paper on the environment

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Last month we celebrated World Environment Day. It’s the time of the year when everyone, from politicians to armchair activists, laments on the degradation of the environment and doles out suggestions to save our planet.

If you look closely at the conversation, you would notice that paper often gets the blame for the heat wave. For example, as Delhi reels under another heat wave, the popular opinion is that lack of trees is the big reason behind the oppressive heat and that by using paper, people encourage the cutting of trees.

The fact, however, could not be further from the truth. The paper industry in most part is not responsible for the dwindling tree count and using less paper will not make our cities any greener.

For starters, let us examine our usage of paper in terms of volume to understand the usage of paper in our daily lives. Chances are, like many households, the newspaper, printed bills, photocopies, printed sheets, paper bags, paper boxes, toilet paper and facial tissue are the products where paper weaves itself into our day-to-day life. This is also supported by data from the website of the Indian Paper Manufacturers Association (IPMA), which shows that Packaging and Board use about 50% of domestic paper, newspapers another 16% and the printing and writing segment (including copier paper and notebooks ) another 30%. 

Myth: paper comes from wood
A whopping 76% paper products in India are sourced from waste paper and agro residue. Of the remaining, bamboo, a fast-growing grass, contributes its share, leaving a part of the load on papermaking to our trees. Paper that comes with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification authenticates their origin from well managed and sustainable forests, not recklessly felled trees. When it comes to FSC, the labels themselves tell a story.

FSC means the product has been manufactured with 100% FSC-certified virgin fibre from FSC-certified forests. FSC MIX means the products has been manufactured with a combination of FSC-certified virgin fibre, controlled sources and/or recycled wood or fibre and FSC Recycled means products manufactured with 100% recycled fibre of which at least 85% is postconsumer (PCW) recycled material.

Myth: digital is green
The slogan, ‘go green, go paperless’ is more about cost-cutting than about saving the planet. A study by Two Sides found that half the leading Fortune 500 telecommunications companies, banks and utilities were making unsubstantiated claims about the environmental benefits of electronic billing. In response, Two Sides initiated a campaign to educate senior executives on the sustainability of print and paper and to encourage them to abandon misleading environmental claims.

In India, you may have noticed that service providers from banks to telecom trick customers into switching from paper to digital. The stated claim is to save the planet, the real reason is often saving money and the consumers are not given a choice to opt for an alternative.

It’s not that digital does not impact the environment. Digital media too has an environmental impact.  Globally, only about 15% of all eWaste is recycled compared to 67% in the case of paper. Paper recycling reuses a renewable resource that sequesters carbon and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas reductions result from avoided methane emissions. In addition, recovering paper extends the fibre supply and saves considerable landfill space. A recent study estimates that developing countries will produce at least twice as much eWaste as developed countries within the next six to eight years.

The authors, based in China and the US, forecast that in 2030, developing countries will discard some 400 million to 700 million obsolete personal computers per year compared to 200 million to 300 million in developed countries. This is significant because uncontrolled toxic emissions result from the informal recycling practices that are often used to deal with eWaste in the developing world. The resulting emissions, which can include dioxins, furans, and cyanide, can harm the recycling workers and pollute local environments.

Myth: paper is bad for the environment
Paper is one of the few truly sustainable products we have. Paper is made from a natural resource that is renewable, recyclable and compostable. Paper has been an integral part of our culture and is essential for modern life. It helps increase levels of literacy worldwide and plays an important role in protecting goods and foodstuffs during transit. Paper made from renewable resources, and responsibly produced has many advantages over other, non-renewable alternative materials. 

The USA, today has more trees than it did a century ago. The reason is responsible forestry. Some people assume that by leaving forests, they are being environmentally friendly. Fact is, if forests are left by themselves, nature will find methods like a disease, bugs, fire, etc to control the growth. It’s better for man to responsibly manage his resources, including forests and trees. So paper from responsible forests is actually good for the environment. It also helps generate livelihood from the forests.

Myth: recycled is always right
While it’s true that collecting used paper and recycling it into new products is good for the environment, there are many other factors in the life cycle of paper which influence its environmental footprint. Paper can be recycled up to seven times before the fibres become too short and weak and break down. That’s why we need a continuous supply of fresh fibre harvested from responsibly managed forests. According to a study by Metafore in 2006, without the infusion of fresh wood, the production of paper will stop between six to 18 months depending on the product grade.

Recently, Sappi published an interesting booklet titled ‘True or False – Urban Legends’, where it is explained that recycling paper for printing is not always the right approach. Preparing recycled paper for high quality printed products hurts the environment more. This is because the costs of de-inking the paper with heavy use of water and chemicals are way higher than using virgin pulp. Higher recycled content is better for products like egg trays, and tissue where optical imperfections are tolerated.

So recycling is good. However it is not always right and like all good things, it needs to be balanced for greater and sustained benefits.

According to the data shared by the Indian Paper Manufacturers Association, almost 2 million people get direct or indirect livelihood from paper, adding USD 750 million to the country’s exchequer. All of us, printers, paper traders, designers and paper technologists are, therefore, responsible for dispelling myths around paper and ensuring it continues to remain a part of our lives.

(Arjun Dewan is a partner at NandiniAakarshita, a Gurgaon-based start-up offering products and services centred around paper.)


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