Environmental impact of the paper industry: what you didn’t know

Let’s see if you can guess: think of a product requires spending liters of water on each unit, emit polluting gases into the atmosphere, compromise natural ecosystems and cut down trees, just to be created. And that is produced on a large scale even after the digitalization of modern life considers it almost obsolete. Yes, you guessed right, I’m talking about the impact of the paper industry on the planet.

Nowadays institutions take many types of exams via digital interfaces, but not all. It is difficult to find a consulate that accepts all the documentation online. And The New York Times still has a circulation of 1,087,500 in the Sunday edition, despite the fact that readers consume most of the content online.

In a highly digital society, there is still too much dependence on paper, and it seems we have all forgotten the environmental impact of the paper industry.

Environmental impact of the paper industry in 6 facts

0.9 of CO₂ industrial emissions come from paper production.

Around 69% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the industry and transportation. And of these, almost 1% of carbon dioxide responds to paper production.

And that figure does not include those harmful gasses emitted by the production of fossil fuels necessary to the process. Or did you think that petrol was not used during the creation and transportation of paper?

It would be a wonderful thing if the pollution ended along with the production process but it doesn’t. Once disposed of, paper generates methane gas during its decomposition process. The emission of this gas is even more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

To make a simple A4 format sheet, the industry needs 20 liters of water.

The 20-liter figure includes the different stages of the process where large quantities of the liquid are necessary: tree growth, pulp manufacturing, paper bleaching.

According to this study, in some countries they use a chilling 10% of their total clean water just on paper. Can you imagine?!

However, some enterprises claim to produce paper with zero water consumption. If you wonder how that would be possible, I only have two words for you: recycled materials.

Paper production requires twice the energy of producing a plastic bag

The paper industry is the fifth industry worldwide in regard to energy consumption.

In fact, we need so much energy in the process that electricity consumption becomes the third largest cost of the paper industry.

Only in 2006, 6.5 million trees were cut down to make paper coffee cups

The most questionable thing about this industry is that a good part of the products for which paper is used are totally replaceable with other materials. A coffee cup is perhaps one of the best examples to illustrate that.

What happened to the ceramic cups people liked so much?

Yes, it is very cool walk down the streets with your steaming coffee and throw the cup in the first corner, but … the amount of paper produced per year increases only thanks to this type of consumist behaviour.

Recently, it exceeded 400 million tons per year

In Western Europe each inhabitant uses an average of 147 kg of paper per year.

It seems incredible (but sadly true) that in the age of the Internet and smartphones there is still so much waste on a resource that costs us both the economy and the environment.

If we know the environmental impact of the paper industry … why do we use so much of it?

  • A good part is used on official paperwork, as physical copies are still required!
  • Product packaging depends almost exclusively on paper. As electronic commerce grows, the demand is increasing.
  • Producing plastic is very polluting, and getting rid of it even more. So the solution to replace plastic containers is often its equivalent with paper. But we are already seeing that it is not an ideal option, because they become disposable products and … we all know what that means.
  • Many times in the office people don’t get the most out of each sheet of paper: they make unnecessary copies or print documents that they can read online, people do not use sheets on both sides and use disposable plates and cutlery for eating.
  • There are movements to use recycled paper, but it is not generalized.
  • Not all countries have a well-articulated recycling system nor do all people have the necessary awareness to separate and organize waste from their home.
  • Many times the brands and companies whose purpose is to produce stationery from recycled pulp are unknown. If more materials were purchased from such stores, the recycling industry would grow and negative environmental impact would be considerably avoide.

Are you a high paper consumer or are you addicted to digital apps? Are you aware of the consumption of this resource around you? Do you recycle or use recycled material?

Tell us your experience and opinions about paper consumption. Perhaps what you do to optimize the use of this resource is an inspiration to others.

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Gabriela M. Fernández

Journalist with a vocation, doesn't lose hope of learning how to program. Hardcore cinephile, TV-show and technology addict... we could say a full-fledged millennial.

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