You’ve heard it dozens of times in the checkout line of your local grocery store—paper or plastic? And while we know that plastic comes with a multitude of issues for the planet, paper isn’t so black and white.
Over the decades, the manufacturing of paper products has become more sustainable, and there are still even more innovations on the horizon. In some cases, classic paper products like cardboard boxes and tissues don’t even need trees. These products used are generally made from virgin fibers, recycled fibers, or a mix of both.
Virgin fibers come from fresh wood cut down specifically for the purpose of making new paper and pose the largest environmental risk. Recycled fibers from old paper products make the papermaking process significantly more friendly to both trees and landfills. Luckily, around 80 percent of all US paper mills use at least some recycled fiber to make paper products according to the paper and wood products trade group the American Forest and Paper Association.
Here’s what else you need to know about the centuries-old commodity and its environmental footprint.
Which trees turn into paper products?
The leafy saplings growing in your yard, the park, or even the forest tend not to be where paper originates. “The trees [for paper] are actually grown as a crop,” says Gary M. Scott, a professor of paper and bioproducts engineering at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
There’s a misconception, he says, that paper companies in the US cut down old-growth forests. “But most, if not all, paper companies harvest their wood in a sustainable fashion so that there is no net loss of forest land,” he says. The American Forest and Paper Association wrote in their 2020 annual report that 99 percent of their members get wood fiber from certified sustainable suppliers that take measures to replant trees and reduce the risk of wildfire. Some countries like Canada even have strict forest sustainability laws.
Virgin wood fiber isn’t typically taken from old-growth forests, says Ronalds Gonzalez, an assistant professor of supply chain and conversion economics at North Carolina State University, because it is “very expensive and inefficient to use natural forests” instead of tree plantations. Pine and fir trees for the paper industry typically grow on plantations and are harvested on decadal time scales.
[Related: Most stuff that could be recycled isn’t.]
According to the US Forest Service, the area of forest land in the US has remained stable since the early 20th century. Currently, forest land area makes up 766 million acres across the country, which is 33 percent of the total land area. Harvested or cut down trees make up a mere two percent of forest land each year. Although, the Forest Service notes, that even though forest area has stayed the same, the creation of additional roads means any person in the US can travel within one mile of 97 percent of the country’s deciduous forests.
But no two products, or even brands, are the same when it comes to where they source their trees—especially when it comes to toilet paper and bath tissue manufacturers, explains Gonzalez. But according to some environmental advocacy groups, toilet paper is a big reason old trees are being chopped, specifically outside of the US.
In a 2020 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council called “The Issue With Tissue 2.0”, NRDC says major bath tissue companies have been using trees from boreal forests in Canada to make toilet paper, which is contributing to the loss of intact, non-fragmented forests. The report says companies often state they plant more trees than they cut down. Still, cutting down old-growth forests and replacing them with new trees doesn’t always help with biodiversity loss or carbon emissions associated with deforestation, according to the BBC.
Clearcut areas stay barren for years, even after replanting new trees. These fragmented forests create a less desirable habitat for animals such as caribou, whose populations are in severe decline. The Forest Products Association of Canada told Reuters last June that the NRDC report “misrepresents our industry” and wrote on their website that Canadian boreal forests are a sustainably managed source of trees.
How are paper products made?
Wood being cut down isn’t the only impact that papermaking has on the environment. Once logs are chipped into small pieces, they are mixed with chemicals that remove material that makes wood stiff, called lignin, and reveal the soft pulp underneath. . The leftover toxic chemical liquid mix that remains is known as black liquor. “That black liquor is not just disposed of,” Scott says. “It goes into what we call a recovery process.”
First, the organic material leftover in the liquor burns in a recovery boiler, which potentially generates energy for the paper mill. Then Scott says, those same papermaking chemicals can be recovered and reused again. Even though there are ways to effectively clean up black liquor, some are too expensive and the pollutants still end up entering the environment.
The pulp is bleached with chlorine bleach to make it bright white, but this chemical has fallen out of favor at some paper mills and faced regulation because it can harm nearby aquatic life. A more environmentally friendly option, elemental chlorine-free bleach, can be applied to pulp to achieve the same effect. Still, the only way to be sure no chlorine products made their way into your paper production is by searching for and buying totally chlorine-free paper. A mill typically uses 17,000 gallons of water per ton of paper but some of this water, specifically during the bleaching stage, is reuseable if the bleach does not contain chlorine.
While the paper industry has become more sustainable over the last few decades, Scott says, there are still ways to improve. The good news is, in the US, people are good about recycling paper products. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, the 2020 paper recycling rate was 65.7 percent, with a rate of 88.8 percent of cardboard. Scott says much of the paper that ends up unrecycled is bath tissue—which is difficult to recover for obvious reasons. Paper that ends up in the landfill emits methane and carbon as it decomposes, similarly to other organic materials.
What is the future of sustainability and paper?
Gonzalez says consumers do care about the sustainability of their products, even down to their toilet paper. “There is a new trend that consumers are trying to use brown paper more than white paper,” he says, which means paper mills might be able to skip the bleach. The way to more sustainable toilet paper is to include more recycled paper, so consumers can look for these products on the store shelves (the NRDC recommends Seventh Generation and Trader Joes, which both use 100 percent recycled fiber).
“We have been doing research over the last six to seven years, with real data, and we are seeing how people are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products,” Gonzalez says. He says he has been working on research that would create sustainability metrics for paper products, making it easier for people to choose what they want to buy.
Sustainable products sometimes lack that softness we all have come to know and expect from our toilet paper and tissues, but Gonzalez says technology is improving. It is even possible to make soft bathroom paper from plants other than trees, he says, out of agricultural residues that’d typically go to waste such as leftovers from sugarcane. Agricultural waste from crops like okra and broad beans also makes for potential base material for other types of paper and cardboard.
More creative sources for paper could mean, in the long run, less of a reliance on trees. But seeing as our paper use has quadrupled in the past 50 years, we will still need sustainably managed resources to keep up our habit.
“I’m a believer that we should have some areas that are dedicated to growing trees, specifically to supply the demand of our society,” Gonzalez says about creating paper resources. “And then we have all the natural areas that we do not touch at all.”