Two Sides Responds to Misleading Claims about the Sustainability of Paper Products in Popular Science
Submitted: Kathi Rowzie April 15, 2021
An article titled “Modern paper use is wildly unsustainable” recently appeared in Popular Science. Two Sides responded to the publication to set the record straight.
April 14, 2021
TO: Popular Science
RE: Article titled “Modern paper use is wildly unsustainable” published April 6, 2021
To the editors:
Myths about the sustainability of the North American paper industry and its products are common media fodder in today’s world of sensationalized, headline-driven journalism. This time it was the turn of Popular Science to weave together a collection of standard anti-paper tropes into your “Modern paper use is wildly unsustainable” article.
Shouldn’t a publication dedicated to reporting on science resist the easy narrative, hold up a submission to the illuminating glow of real authoritative data and pick up the phone to ask industry scientists or a school of forestry if any of what the authors claim makes sense?
After all, paper is not only the most recycled material in North America. It is a material whose industry grows and regrows its own feedstock (wood fiber), derives most of the power to drive its processes from carbon neutral biofuel, and recycles more than 95% of the chemicals it uses to turn trees into pulp. This is not “wildly unsustainable.” This is a description of some of the world’s most sustainable products.
You always know what’s coming when an article begins with the classic, bait-and-switch doomed forests appeal. The hook is baited by painting a mental picture for the reader of the destruction of faraway endangered forests like those in Borneo and the Amazon, and the switch is the implication that these forests are the source of trees for North America’s paper and paper-based packaging products.
Paper products manufactured in the United States and Canada come from sustainably managed forests in North America, and these forests are not “disappearing.” Net forest area in the United States increased by approximately 18 million acres between 1990 and 2020, while Canada’s net forest area was stable between 1990 and 2020 at approximately 857 million acres.1
Each year, forests in North America grow significantly more wood than is harvested. In the United States, the net average annual increase in growing stock on timberland is about 25 billion cubic feet. Tree cutting and removal in the U.S. occurs on less than 2% of forestland per year in contrast to the nearly 3% disturbed annually by natural events like insects, disease, and fire.2 Harvesting occurs on 0.2% of Canada’s forestlands, while 4.7% is disturbed by insects and 0.5% is disturbed by fire.3
Contrary to the authors’ claim that manufacturing and using paper destroys forests, the demand for sustainably sourced paper and paper-based packaging creates a powerful financial incentive for landowners not only to manage and harvest their land responsibly, but also to keep it forested rather than converting it to non-forest uses, one of the real documented causes of forest loss.
The authors’ proposed solution to this non-problem of paper-caused forest loss is not the sure thing they claim it is: alternative fibers. Alternative fibers can be sustainably used in certain grades of paper and under certain circumstances, particularly in regions of the world like India and China where wood fiber is scarce. But their claim that “alternative materials have a fraction of the environmental impact” that tree fiber does is a gross exaggeration. While a comprehensive life cycle assessment is required to determine the full environmental impacts of alternative fiber papers, some broad conclusions can be drawn.
To begin with, alternative fibers are often grown like agricultural crops, which means there will be no trees on the landscapes where they are planted, in perpetuity. Forestlands that are harvested for tree fiber are replanted or allowed to grow back naturally. Also like agricultural crops, alternative fiber crops typically require more water and pesticides and generate more wastewater runoff than forests. And since, unlike trees, there is little residual biomass in alternative fibers, the process of converting them to paper must rely more on fossil fuels.
Moreover, global statistics on forests do not suggest that the use of alternative fiber paper products would protect forests for the long-term. The regions of the world that consume the least amount of wood are those that have the highest rates of deforestation.1
The authors are correct that paper products as a whole are recycled at over 60% in the United States. In fact, the figure is closer to 66%, and 70% in Canada, but even these statistics are only half the story. Some paper products, like corrugated boxes are recycled at rates of over 90%, demonstrating the potential for overall recycling rates to go even higher.4,5
The North American paper industry has invested tens of millions of dollars in capital-intensive recycling technology, as well as the collection and transportation systems to support it. As of the most recent survey, over 80% of all paper mills in the United States use recovered fiber as at least part of their fiber source. The investments are paying off as newer equipment and processes are allowing the paper mills to repulp post-consumer paper that was once unusable, including more of the paper cups and soiled pizza boxes mentioned by the authors.
Neither should your readers be concerned about “chlorine-based bleaches used to make paper whiter.” As the authors correctly noted, there are “restrictions on the kinds of bleach that paper companies can use,” but the story doesn’t end there. Over the last three decades, massive voluntary industry investment and stricter environmental regulations have combined to drive major advances in bleaching technology. Since the authors specifically refer to “modern” paper making, let’s be clear: today’s state-of-the art mill processes have dramatically reduced the chances that the substances referred to by the authors can be released into the environment.
Yes, by all means, we should retrain our brains. But let’s start by resisting the urge to cut and paste the same tired myths into sensational retread articles. Let’s start with a fresh look at the truly “modern” production and use of paper and build the training on a foundation of real-world data and science.
Two Sides North America
1UN Food and Agriculture Organizations, 2020
2 USDA Forest Services, 2019
3 Natural Resources Canada, 2020
4 American Forest and Paper Association, 2020
5 Forest Products Association of Canada, 2020