Paper's Impact on the Environment: Debunking Myths

Brittany Blackman
Jul 20, 2022

As climate crisis concerns heighten, a great deal of information is available for discerning readers. However, with the heavy saturation of knowledge regarding sustainable practices plaguing curious consumers, it's hard to tell what's true and what's industry propaganda. 

One of the most debated myths regarding the paper industry is whether or not paper is as easily recyclable as many people think. Not all paper products are recycled indefinitely since their fibers get too short and worn out to be helpful in creating a new sheet of paper. Production cannot be based on 100% recycled fibers as 100% of consumption cannot be collected. That being said, the sustainable paper cycle must be consistently refilled with new strong fibers from sustainably managed forests.

Another heavily debated topic regarding paper production is how much paper-based product is actually recycled. 

According to Two Sides, an environmental information company, the paper industry uses a prestigious forestry certification to ensure that the new "virgin fiber" originates from sustainable sources. The two certification organizations are Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) and the Program for the Paper. Europe has re-used paper products an average of 3.8 times, and 56% of the fibrous raw material used in Europe's paper industry comes from paper for recycling.

In 2020, a total of 56 million tons of paper were collected and recycled in Europe at a recycling rate of 74%. This is approaching the estimated practical maximum of 78%.

The recycling rate is even higher for paper-based packaging, with 83% of paper and cardboard packaging recycled in Europe. Two Sides also reports that paper is the most recycled packaging material, followed by metal (80%), glass (75%), and plastic (42%).

Additionally, according to EcoWatch, paper is one of the most recycled materials in America. It accounts for around half of the materials collected for recycling by weight. Also, over 50 million tons of paper were recovered for recycling in 2021, reaching a 68% recycling rate. In 2021, 91.4% of corrugated cardboard was recycled, and almost half of the paper recycled in 2021 was used to make cardboard boxes.

Finally, another topic of contention for the paper industry is those pesky plastic straws. Many people want to know if nixing plastic straws and replacing them with paper straws in their everyday lives has a significant environmental impact. 

The massive shift to paper straws can be traced back to two trends. The first trend, which has been gaining steam for years, is an elevated consciousness of the environmental impact of disposable plastic products. The second trend is the rise of the "ethical consumer," people who are willing to pay more for products that meet their moral standards.

While paper straws are biodegradable and therefore more sustainable than plastic, the effects are not as remarkable as many believe. The manufacturing of paper straws still contributes to deforestation, which means fewer trees can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—a climate disaster. 

Just like plastic straws, paper straws are still single-use, which are not ideal for the environment as their demand and overall production will undoubtedly increase over time. It's still waste at the end of the day. Not to mention, using paper straws is not the most pleasant experience. 

While paper continues to be one of the more environmentally-conscious materials on the market, it still contributes to deforestation and other climate woes. However, opting for more paper products instead of more harmful waste products like plastic has a more positive impact on the environment. It's essential to be a discerning consumer these days, and it's equally crucial to sift through all of the data regarding sustainability to make these decisions.

Photo by Alfonso Navarroon Unsplash

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