We all want to purchase paper products that help that the environment by reducing energy use, greenhouse emissions, while protecting valuable old-growth trees. But practicing “sustainable” purchasing is not as simple as just recycling anymore, and it becomes even more challenging amid the rising global demand for paper. There exists a long-standing belief that recycling is the best and only option to minimize your environmental footprint. However that notion is being transformed, as innovation in the paper industry is unearthing more sustainable options. Sustainable paper production and consumption begins even before paper is recycled – it begins with rapidly renewable fiber (RRF). RRF is the new frontier of sustainability; paper made with RRF is made with environmentally friendly trees from plantations that are optimized to save energy while protecting old-growth forests.
Recycling – More than Meets the Eye
During the 1990s, recycling was popular because it was the only known sustainable option, and it was also straightforward. All you had to do when buying paper products was to peek at the product’s recycled content percent. The higher the number, the more sustainable purchasing you were engaging in. However, times are changing.
By today’s standards the processes and economies-of-scale that go into producing so-called sustainable paper products with recycled content have become so labor- and energy-intensive that there is more to a paper product’s stamp of sustainability than meets the eye.
What consumers in the 1990s did not realize was how cumbersome it was to re-purpose recycled fiber back into paper. The process included delivery of used and soiled paper to paper to mills, conversion back to pulp, de-inking and then redistribution; and it came to light that this process actually has a greater environmental impact than previously realized.
Take for example paper that is recycled in the United States. About one-third of it is sent to China. The paper must be picked up by the local disposal company, processed then cut, bundled for shipping, delivered to a local port, taken by cargo ship to China, transported by train (most often by coal train in rural areas of China), de-inked with non-biodegradable chemicals, re-shaped into a new paper product, and returned to the U.S. through the same routes.
For something that should be good for the environment, recycling demands a lot of work and wastes energy. This is especially relevant given that, even with advancements in recycling technology, people still prefer to use paper products that aren’t made from recycled paper.
Rapidly Renewable Fiber – Sustainability Begins Before Recycling
The advent of sustainable tree plantations is revolutionizing the paper industry and antiquated notions of recycling.
Tree plantations in regions like Southeast Asia produce rapidly renewable fiber (RRF), because the region’s tropical climate along the earth’s equatorial band is optimal for accelerated growth and shortened maturity cycles for trees. For example, acacia and eucalyptus trees in Southeast Asia can be grown and harvested (in the same manner as crops such as corn and wheat) in about six years, in comparison of the nearly 60 years it can take to harvest a tree in northern climates.
Paper mills such as APP are also minimizing their carbon footprint with something know as the “green cycle concept” which places plantations within very close physical proximity to their mills. Remember the process it took to recycle paper from the U.S., which had to be shipped to China, and imagine the amount of greenhouse gases that permeated the atmosphere. The green cycle concept reduces the distances trees must travel to their mill, thus minimizing the carbon footprint this type of paper production process leaves behind.
The Young Tree Advantage
An additional advantage of using RRF for the environment is that these young, fast-growing trees absorb more carbon than old-growth trees, in order to grow. Tree plantations in Indonesia also do no leave noticeable “holes” in forests, unlike their colder, northern-climate cousins because they grow quickly, and are organized and grown in a manner that preserves the landscape, which serve as habitats for local wildlife.
Welcome to the Fiber Age
Paper can be sustainable without recycling, when it’s made with rapidly renewable fiber (RRF) from plantation-grown trees. RRF saves energy; and because they are an infinite source for fiber, old-growth trees remain untouched, even amid the rising global demand for paper products.
So the next time you shop for paper products, look not at its recycled-content percentage; instead, look to see if it was made with rapidly renewable fiber.