Seeing the Forest and the Trees

August 3, 2015

Paper and other forest products can contribute to sustainable consumption.

By Martha Spizziri

If you’d like to use ecologically sustainable products, look no further than the forest.

Forest products have quite a bit to offer from a sustainability standpoint. For one thing, they’re renewable. Forest owners plant trees to replace those harvested, according to the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA). In fact, there are 20 percent more trees in the United States now than there were 50 years ago, the AF&PA says.

“It’s important to remember that the paper industry harvests trees made specifically for this purpose (paper manufacturing); we aren’t harvesting protected woodlands,” says Melissa Klug, key account manager, envelope & converting papers division, Glatfelter, a global supplier of specialty papers and engineered products.

Klug also points out that, with environmental stewardship expectations rising, more companies are looking to certify their products for sustainability through organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forest Initiative.

Recycling hero

There are many sustainability pluses that support paper, including that it’s one of the most-recycled products in the country. The forest-products industry has a recycling rate above 60 percent, says Cathy Foley, AF&PA group vice president.

And a little-known paper fact? The paper industry uses parts of the tree that aren’t turned into end products, such as tree limbs and some byproducts of the paper pulping process, to provide energy for manufacturing its products. According to the AF&PA, these “biomass” energy sources meet about two-thirds of the industry’s energy needs on average.

Energy miser

The use of biomass, coupled with improvements in energy efficiency, have allowed AF&PA member companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10.5 percent between 2005 and 2010, says the AF&PA. That’s significant, because those companies manufacture about three-quarters of the pulp, paper, paper packaging, and wood building materials in the United States. Both the greenhouse-gas reduction and the increase in paper recovered for recycling are the result of goals AF&PA set for its members to meet by 2020. Other results to date are that between 2005 and 2010, member companies were able to boost the efficiency of energy they purchased by 8.1 percent and lower water use by 6 percent.

And there’s one final myth about forest products that needs to be debunked: It’s that recycled is always best. Virgin forest products, those made from paper not previously recycled, actually have advantages. For instance, transporting and de-inking recycled paper for the manufacturing process can add to its carbon footprint, whereas growing trees to make new forest products ensures land is kept forested. And as companies increasingly move to certified sustainable sources, that’s something to feel good about.