Impacts of Paper
Paper is a material that is present in almost every aspect of life. It is how humans often communicate and share information in the form of books or paperwork, how many food products are packaged, is a substrate for various forms of art, and so many more uses. With millions of tons of paper being produced each year, how is paper impacting the environment? The process utilizes gallons upon gallons of water as well as enormous amounts of plant matter. How has papermaking remained sustainable, or was it ever sustainable in the first place?
Industrial production of paper obviously wastes much more than an individual. Creating larger quantities of paper requires more energy, more water, and more pulp with less concern about reuse of water or concern of waste. The quality of the final product and the money made is the priority. Within the processes of industrial papermaking, I will cover water usage, habitat disruption, a little bit about plant usage, different paper products, and recycling. How do all these different elements of paper affect the environment, and how can we change the negative impact?
Paper was first created in Ancient Egypt around 3700-3200 BC, and ever since it has been an essential part of human life. Papermaking techniques we know of today were developed in China in 105 AD. The paper mill was introduced in 1282, which innovated the production of paper. However, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that the mass production of paper was made possible and costs were significantly reduced. Over the centuries all over the world, the process and materials used to make paper evolved. This increased the demand for paper-based products and led to the paper and pulp industry we experience today. In the last two centuries, advances in papermaking technologies, increase in global commerce, and affordability of paper products have led to alarming increases in paper consumption, which, unbeknownst to most individuals, has caused significant environmental damage. The global demand for paper product is significant, with more than 350 million tons produced annually in 2010. Generating over $200 billion annually, the paper products industry is big business, and it is only getting bigger. (The Environmental Sustainability of Paper)
What are the environmental impacts of the papermaking process? The first impact is the source. Wood is the most commonly used source for industrial papermaking. Deforestation occurs to obtain paper pulp, and is a critical environmental concern. One of the leading contributing factors to endangered wildlife species is deforestation. Environmental impacts of deforestation include: energy consumption for logging, the destruction of natural ecosystems, reduced water quality, soil erosion, diminished habitats for plants and animals, and the elimination of old-growth forests. Reforestation is becoming more common, but finding a sustainable solution should be the main focus. (The Environmental Sustainability of Paper)
In addition to deforestation, another impact of industrial papermaking is pollution. The process of making paper itself is toxic. Chemicals are found in most papermaking processes. Pesticides used in the forest and a variety of chemicals are used in the process to create pulp. Some of the commonly used chemicals are chlorine, mercury, absorbable organic halogens, nitrates, ammonia, phosphorus, and caustic soda, each of which damages the environment differently.
The primary element used when making paper is water. According to the EPA, the paper industry is the largest user of industrial process water per ton of end product. Paper producers are becoming more competitive for water supplies as water shortages are becoming more common. In addition, the paper industry is the fourth largest contributor to toxins on surface water.
How can we make papermaking more sustainable? The impacts of paper become interconnected. If we use less paper products, then the need for virgin paper would decline. Less demand for paper would equal less paper made. Sustainable forestry practices are required to ensure that virgin paper is available at a reasonable cost, and so that habitats are not destroyed. The forest industry is establishing sustainable forestry initiatives, which emphasize natural resources and wildlife conservation, prompt reforestation, and a deeper awareness of environmental responsibility and stewardship. (The Challenges of Sustainable Papermaking) Utilizing non-wood fibers, such as bamboo, reeds, or cereal straw, would also decrease deforestation. In addition to sustainable forestry practices, recovering paper as a raw material is important as well. Papermaking is one of the leading recycling industries. Fiber can be reused up to seven times before the fibers become too weak. Utilizing these two strategies will lead to a more sustainable papermaking future.
As the world becomes more and more digital, somehow we have increased our paper consumption. Hopefully as environmentally aware companies and approaches grow, so will our approach to the paper making process. As the world goes digital, the need for more paper should decrease, as well as the environmental impacts.
Blanco, Angeles, Carlos Negro, Concepcion Monte, Elena Fuente, and Julio Tiger. "The Challenges of Sustainable Papermaking." Environmental Science and Technology (2004): 414A-20A.
Smith, Richard. "The Environmental Sustainability of Paper." Graduate Studies Journal of Organizational Dynamics 1.1 (2011): n. pag.