Is Paper the Poster Boy for Sustainable Forests?


Renewable, recyclable, and often reusable, paper presents a case study for forest preservation, economic benefit and life cycle analysis.  Did I mention biodegradable?

I believe that paper use will eventually achieve an elite sustainability status in environmental practices.  Does that sound like a bold statement?  Renewable, recyclable, and often reusable, paper presents a case study for forest preservation, economic benefit and life cycle analysis.  Did I mention biodegradable?

There is a runaway perception that paper is the ultimate tree killer, and that we need to stop printing on paper altogether.  Our friends at Toshiba put an exclamation point on that notion.  How did we in the paper products industry become the low-hanging fruit for the  save-a-tree crowd?  Simply, because it is just too easy.  It resonates with a public more interested in sound bites than truth.

We know there will be an endless parade of paper detractors unless we turn the tide.  That tide is educating the new generations of paper users and their parents.  How did we let ignorance get this far?  In June of 2008 the U.S. Postal Service released a study:  Life Cycle Inventory Analysis of the U.S. Mail.  The study showed that mail, including paper production, printing, distribution, and delivery uses only .6% of the total national energy consumption.  When compared to household energy use, the entire life cycle of mail uses the equivalent amount of energy as a small appliance, like a coffee maker.  At the time of this study, the Postal Service was already making a case for mail and its future sustainability.

What matters now is building some momentum for trees as a sustainable resource because of paper.  Trees are reducing CO2, releasing oxygen, harboring moisture, creating habitats for an endless list of living organisms, and on and on.  When it is recycled (and prevented from breaking down in landfills), paper has a much lower carbon footprint than many products because it is manufactured using a high percentage of renewable biomass energy.

What makes a tree sustainable because of paper?  It is the economics.  Paper is one very important product made from wood.  Its future depends on the sustainability of the forest.  What is not understood by most is:  paper use supports sustainable forest management in the U.S.  If there is an economic reason to support the forest as a forest (as opposed to a development, golf course, or shopping mall), then that is worth talking about.  Paper makers not only create an economic need for forests, but actively maintain and nurture them to affect their viability for generations.

And paper?  We have never managed its life cycle better than we do today.  You could say it actually does have up to 5 lives in many cases.  Can’t say that about the monitor you are staring at right now, can you?  We have not done a very good job of educating the public, and if we never do it, the time will come when paper will be squelched by public environmental interests.  In that case, ignorance will not be bliss.  True or not, perception is reality.  Until we start making our electronic gadgets more renewable and recyclable (like paper), we will continue  creating mountains of e-waste and quickly depleting what is left of our non-renewable resources.

Steve Brocker is a guest blogger for Two Sides.  He is VP Sales and Marketing for Western States Envelope & Label.  Steve is chairman of the Postal/Government Affairs Committee of the Envelope Manufacturers Association (EMA.)  He is also a member of the EMA Foundation’s Institute for Environmental Studies Committee.