Monday, October 2, 2023

When It Comes to Paper, Is Recycled Really the Most Sustainable Choice?


From paper bags and toilet tissue to newspapers and notebooks, recycled paper is everywhere. But just how sustainable is it really?

Virtual documents are becoming more common, but offices, households, and schools still have a need for that simple, traditional 2,000-year-old invention: paper. In fact, so far this year, more than 78 million tons of paper have been produced, according to the World Counts.

But while it’s incredibly useful, paper production comes with a big environmental impact. For one, it requires a lot of trees, which contributes to deforestation. But when it’s thrown away, it also contributes to major greenhouse gas emissions. In landfills, which account for around 11 percent of methane emissions, around 26 percent of the total waste is paper. 

There’s no denying that paper does make up a lot of trash, but on the flip side, it’s also one of the most frequently recycled materials in the world. And that means the recycled paper market is burgeoning. But is it actually a real, long-term solution to the industry’s environmental problems? 

Is recycled paper actually better for the environment?

For you, after you’ve popped your paper in the recycling bin, shut the lid, and wheeled it down to the curb for collection, your job is done. You can pat yourself on the back, and go about your day. 

But for the paper, this is just the first step in a pretty long journey. After collection, the paper goes to a sorting facility, before it is transported to a paper mill. There, it is screened, cleaned, de-inked, and bleached, before it is ready for use again. 

The entire process is quite energy-intensive and uses a lot of water, but nowhere near as much as virgin paper. According to clean water technology company Kirton, the latter needs around 54,000 liters of water per ton. (This means that the paper industry is one of the biggest consumers of water in the entire world.) 

Paper contributes to deforestation. Photo courtesy Dan Smedley | Unsplash

Recycled paper also requires the use of chemicals to remove ink and color, but again, not as many as virgin. “Pulping, bleaching and manufacturing paper, especially paper made from ‘chemical’ pulp (used for most printing papers other than newsprint), requires more chemicals and is often more polluting than making recycled paper,” notes recycled paper specialists PaperBack. “Recycled paper production uses up to 50 percent less water than virgin paper and fewer chemical processes.”

There’s also the reduction in methane emissions to consider with recycled paper, as the original paper didn’t go to the landfill. Plus, there’s a drop in deforestation, as no new trees are needed. This doesn’t just preserve trees, but also, again, limits emissions. (When trees are harvested, they release CO2 into the atmosphere.)

So on balance, yes, recycled is better for the environment than virgin. But when it comes to reducing paper’s impact, these aren’t the only options available. 

Sustainable paper without any trees

Paper made from trees is still the most accessible option on the market. But there are some companies out there making paper without any trees at all. Based in Bengaluru, India, Bluecat Paper makes sustainable paper options by hand, using tree-free, upcycled materials, like coconuts, flax, and even elephant poo. Yep, you read that correctly.

“Elephant dung is a rich source of fiber and is naturally processed in the digestive tract of the elephant,” notes the brand. “As a result, a significant number of fibers remain intact and is perfect to turn into elephant poo paper.”

Other brands have also caught onto poop’s potential. PooPooPaper, for example, offers sheets, envelopes, cards, stationery, and more all made with dung from elephants, as well as cows, horses, donkeys, and buffalos. 

It doesn’t require any chemicals in the production process or any chopping down of trees. Plus, it supports animal conservation. “Elephant poo fibers are collected from some of the many elephant sanctuaries and parks in northern Thailand and our local mahout network,” the brand notes. 

Elephant poo paper? Photo courtesy Mylon Ollila | Unsplash

It makes sense to use this resource, after all, elephants spend around 80 percent of their days eating, which means they produce a heck of a lot of poop (around 220 pounds a day!). “All of these materials are abundant locally,” continues PooPooPaper. “And in many cases, our removal of the waste material is helpful and welcome.”

Dung is yet to go totally mainstream. But other tree-free varieties are slowly becoming more common. German company Gmund Paper offers durable and recyclable hemp paper, for example. 

But another key part of reducing paper’s impact is behavior change. Whether you use virgin, recycled, poop, or hemp, as consumers, we can also try to reduce the amount of paper we use, and reuse what we can too.

As sustainable management consultant Pablo Päster writes for Treehugger, “Reduce the amount of paper and other resources that you consume, Reuse them whenever possible (paper has two sides!), and always Recycle!”

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