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Whether as a newspaper or book, packaging material, or hygienic utensil, some 1,900 years after its invention, paper continues to be widely used in everyday life and continues to be an indispensable material. Many find fault with paper making – it is said that the process is too elaborate, that it wastes resources, or that it harms the environment. But a sheet always has more than one side – what is behind these common myths about paper?
“The paper industry destroys forests”
Between 2005 and 2015, European forests grew by 44,000 square kilometers – an area larger than Switzerland. Their sustainable use is crucial for the paper industry so that it can benefit from this renewable resource in the future too. It makes up a comparatively small share of deforestation: energy generation uses half of the global timber harvest, 28% is utilized for construction work, and only 13% for paper production. Protecting forests is essential for preserving biodiversity. According to the 2011 CEPI Sustainability Report, half of European forests and 92.2% of forests managed by the paper industry are now certified according to international standards. This ensures that the wood processed is mainly from sustainably managed forests. The situation in the southern hemisphere is more critical. The hunger for arable land in the tropics is especially insatiable, for example for palm oil and soybean plantations, and vast forest areas are still being cleared.
“We could just recycle and not cut down any more trees”
Europe is already the world champion in recycling: more than half of all paper is recycled, and nine out of ten newspapers are made from recycled paper. However, this process also has its limits. Cellulose fibers can only be processed about four to eight times. When they can no longer be used, they are converted into renewable or green energy. In order to keep the paper cycle alive, fresh fibers must be added again and again. Recycling is not suitable for all types of paper, because the desired characteristics can sometimes only be achieved with fresh fibers, as can be seen in graphic paper. Moreover, roughly 19% of paper is not really recyclable, since it stops being recycled after being used as toilet paper or cigarette paper or is archived in the form of books and documents. The goal of the European paper industry is therefore to maintain the current recycling rate of 70%.
“E-communication is better than paper-based”
Whether we send an e-mail or a letter, both types of communication have an impact on the environment. There is no easy answer to the question of which is more environmentally friendly. For a lifecycle assessment, the entire lifespan of the means of communication must be considered – and that is a short one for computers and smartphones: approximately ten million tons of electronic waste are generated annually in the EU, but only 2% of this electronic waste is recycled. In comparison, the European paper industry recycles about 70% of the paper produced. It takes a lot of energy to produce paper, but the energy consumption from online activities should not be ignored. A total of 4,239 average households could be supplied with energy from the power consumption of all Google searches in a single month. Compared to average annual electricity demand in EU countries, cloud services are already ranked sixth worldwide, with an expected increase of 63% by 2020.
“Paper production harms the environment”
Paper as a climate killer? In actuality, the environmentally-friendly properties of paper go all the way down to its “roots.” Everything begins in the forest. The renewable source and sustainable origin of every sheet of paper is a tree, which uses photosynthesis to process millions of tons of carbon dioxide, thereby keeping the air clean. Once stored, the carbon remains a part of the wood during further processing – for the life of the paper until it is recycled. After only five years, this reduces the CO2 footprint created by the release of carbon dioxide during the production process by about 5%, and by 75% after 100 years. With anticipatory forest management, the paper industry is helping to reduce CO2 emissions worldwide. Although production has risen in recent years, the impact on the environment has declined considerably.
“Paper production consumes too much energy”
Like all industrial production, the paper industry also needs energy, in particular for operating machines and drying paper webs. In Germany roughly 800 kWh of energy is used to produce 200 kg of paper, which is the average annual per-capita demand in the EU countries. This amount of energy would allow a computer to run continuously for up to eight months. Around half of the energy consumption of European paper mills comes from renewable energy sources that are carbon neutral. The paper industry uses waste material from the pulping process to generate biomass energy used in its own production processes. Any surplus energy is then often sold locally.
Picture credits: Siemens AG
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