Modern paper use is wildly unsustainable. Here’s what you can do about it.
Luckily, even as consumers, there's a lot we can do.
Editor’s Note: In response to reader feedback on this book excerpt, PopSci interviewed experts about sourcing, processing, and recycling in the US paper industry. Check out the story here.
The following is an excerpt adapted from Imagine It!: A Handbook for a Happier Planet by Laurie David and Heather Reisman.
We rarely, if ever, think about climate change and other environmental damage when we are filling our shopping carts with paper towels, facial tissues, or toilet paper; and likely even less when we are picking up our morning cup of coffee or using paper cups, paper shopping bags, or all that holiday wrapping paper. Ditto when standing at the photocopier. Paper is just a ubiquitous item in our lives and one we generally think of as having little or no value and totally disposable.
The reality is that paper has many impacts on our planet. Every step of the process, from logging to pulping to manufacturing to eventual trashing, puts some level of stress on the climate, on our communities, and on our ecosystems.
Let’s start with where paper comes from—our forests. The health and future of forests is inextricably tied to our own health and future. Forests, from the lush tropical rain forests of South America and Borneo to the majestic boreal forest that crowns the Earth’s northern hemisphere, are home to species found nowhere else on Earth as well as to Indigenous peoples who have both stewarded and relied on these forests for millennia. Forests are also critical allies in the fight against climate change, as they absorb planet-warming carbon dioxide from the air.
As the world’s demand for paper has grown, so too has industrial logging of our forests. Often, this logging involves clear-cutting centuries-old forests that will take many human lifetimes tore turn—if they ever do. Three billion trees are logged for packaging alone every year, and some of them come from ancient and endangered forests. Think cardboard boxes, shoe boxes, boxes for beauty products, and so much more.
Toilet paper may represent one of the most egregious and wasteful causes of forest loss. The largest US toilet paper brands drive a dangerous tree-to-toilet “pipeline” that is contributing to an unsustainable loss of trees, including the boreal forest in Canada. This is one of the few remaining and largest intact wildernesses in the world and one of the world’s most precious resources for mitigating climate change. The Canadian boreal forest is home to boreal caribou and billions of migratory birds seen in backyards across North America each spring and fall. It is a treasure!
Fortunately, there are alternatives to sending old-growth forests to a short-lived fate in a bathroom or as a cup for coffee. Instead of using virgin forest fiber, which is made directly from trees, companies could use alternative fibers. These alternative materials have a fraction of the environmental impact. For example, toilet paper made from recycled content has one-third the carbon footprint of toilet paper made from virgin forest fiber.
Losing the trees is just one part of the problem. The trees taken from the forest are turned into pulp, and that pulp is turned into paper in a process that itself has severe environmental impacts. The paper-making process discharges greenhouse gases into the air and creates toxic wastewater runoff. Of particular concern are chlorine-based bleaches used to make paper whiter. While there are now some restrictions on the kinds of bleach that paper companies can use, even the new bleaches release toxins into the air and water, which can contaminate our drinking water and the fish we eat.
On paper waste
Paper accounts for up to 25 percent of total waste in the United States and close to one-third of all waste in Canada. Of all the paper that is discarded, approximately 60 percent is recycled, which is essentially the beginning of a good news story. The problem is that the remainder, which is not recycled, is still a lot of paper. Some of the paper that is more challenging to recycle includes paper that is wax coated or has absorbed food waste—for example, coated juice and cereal boxes, coated paper cups, milk cartons, ice-cream cartons, soiled pizza boxes, magazines laminated with plastic. Even store receipts that have a plastic coating.
This unrecyclable paper ends up in landfills, and that is where the big problem occurs. Landfills are the third-largest source of human-generated methane emissions in the US, and decomposing paper is one of the most significant sources of landfill methane.
NOTE: Not all recycled paper is of equal value in terms of environmental advantage. Postconsumer recycled paper, which uses fiber made from paper that was used, recycled, and then turned into something else, is the most sustainable kind of recycled material. Pre-consumer recycled paper, which is made from manufacturing scraps but hasn’t ever actually been used by consumers, is better than virgin forest wood fiber but doesn’t have the same benefits as postconsumer recycled material. It’s a subtle but important difference! Generally, a product made with recycled paper is marked as such.
Certification systems like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) confirm with a product stamp which paper products come from responsibly managed forests. Paper products made from postconsumer recycled material help to divert paper from landfills and reduce harmful emissions. If companies that are currently making paper products and using virgin pulp were instead to invest in increasing the capacity and quality of their recycling infrastructure, we would be able to turn even more waste paper into new products.
Retrain your brain. Connect paper with trees. Less paper, less virgin paper, and more post-consumer recycled paper = less destruction of our forests, our air, and our water.
Reprinted from Imagine It!. Copyright © 2020 by Laurie David and Heather Reisman. Published by Rodale Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.