Who Needs Paper?

We all do. Paper helps us do business, learn better—and it’s a renewable resource.

With concern about the environment, people often want to reduce their use of paper. You’ll frequently hear people say things like, “Oh, don’t print that out. Let’s save a tree.”

We can be almost neurotic about it.

“Everyone just thinks about the paper that’s in their home printer, or at their office, but what about the lumber that was used to build your house? You wouldn’t even think twice about going to build a new deck. Those are all forest products as well, and somehow we don’t have any guilt about using those materials,” observes Melissa Klug, Glatfelter’s product manager for publishing and converting papers.

In fact, not only can paper be more useful than alternatives such as electronic media, it is manufactured within an industry that uses practices that protect and enhance our environmental, social, and economic resources.

Renewable and Recyclable

What people tend to forget is that trees are a renewable resource. In fact, paper companies typically plant three trees for each one they harvest, according to the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA). Recent U.S. Forest Service data show that the amount of forest in the United States is about the same as it was in 1907.

In addition, paper is one of the most recycled products in the United States.

“People in general are very responsible now about recycling,” says Klug. In fact, about 60 percent of paper in the United States is recovered for recycling, according to AF&PA reports. And there is a demand for the recycled product.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in the number of customers that want recycled products of post-consumer waste content,” says Klug.

But even if you’re not using post-consumer-waste (PCW) paper, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should feel guilty. While, undoubtedly, PCW paper keeps material out of a landfill or trash dump, virgin paper can have a lower carbon footprint.

“What customers often don’t realize is they want PCW content in their paper, but they want the physical characteristics for that paper to still be pristine. You have to bleach those fibers,” Klug points out. “It has to be de-inked.”

In addition, waste may have to be transported from far away, whereas new materials might be sourced closer to the mill.

“In some cases, virgin fiber is the better choice from a carbon-footprint standpoint,” says Klug.
Higher PCW content is most likely to be the best environmental choice when it’s in a dark paper stock, or cardboard. (And if you’re still feeling guilty, remember that virgin paper can be recycled.)

Land management and habitat

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in the amount of people that want some sort of certification for their paper, whether it’s FSC or SFI certification,” notes Klug.

Groups such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) provide certification to forest owners that meet certain environmental standards for management. Some groups include social concerns, such as the rights of workers and indigenous people, among the criteria, too. These groups also provide what’s called chain-of-custody certification, which shows that an end product was made with responsible practices throughout the production process.

The paper industry is working to source more of its materials from certified forests. The AF&PA reports that its members obtained roughly 24 percent of their wood fiber from certified forests.
Well-managed forests provide a habitat for endangered species and can help store carbon dioxide. They also preserve natural spaces so people can enjoy them. Some paper manufacturers allow scouting and recreational groups to use their land.

Sometimes paper is the best option

There are many occasions in life when nothing works quite as well as paper. Useful as they are, computers are vulnerable to mishap.

“Servers can crash, even if you have redundancy,” notes Klug. A couple of years ago, it actually rained indoors at Facebook’s data center. There wasn’t a leak in the roof; high humidity actually caused a rain cloud to form indoors. Some of the servers were destroyed. Creating a dual backup—electronic and paper—is the best insurance against data loss, Klug says.

Paper holds its own against electronics in the ecological arena, too. Consumers often assume that e-books or electronic documents have a lighter ecological footprint than printed matter, but that’s not necessarily so.

“Nothing we consume in modern-day life is free of some sort of footprint,” Klug points out. “Servers are in server farms that have to be cooled to 67 degrees, and that requires a tremendous amount of energy.”

Computers contain materials that must be mined and are not easily replenished. We, as consumers, tend to like to ditch older devices and upgrade to the latest model. Even if we are inclined to hang onto a device, it generally has a life of only a few years. Not surprisingly, electronics are the fastest-growing category of waste.

Although there’s a perception that today’s computer-oriented public doesn’t pay attention to direct mail, the reverse is actually true. According to the Direct Marketing Association, research shows that direct mail response rates are about 30 times those of email.

Then there’s the intersection of learning and paper.

In 2009, students at Princeton University were given free Kindles to use in studying. Many of the students disliked the devices. Compared to paper, they found them awkward to navigate. The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business also experimented with Kindles, with similar results. Asked whether they’d recommend electronic readers to other students as a study device, 75 to 80 percent of the Darden students said “no.”

There are also studies that indicate students don’t learn as well on electronic devices. One reason is the distraction factor that comes with multipurpose tools. But even compared to a dedicated e-reader with low distraction factor, there seems to be something about the physical aspects of a book that boosts the ability to recall information. And research done at Indiana University showed that writing information down on paper helps students learn better than taking typed notes or just reviewing material visually or orally.

Another advantage to paper: It can be the best format there is when it comes to historical documentation, as librarians and archivists have learned. As one technology succeeds another, older data can become inaccessible if you can’t get your hands on the right device. (Think of Edison’s wax cylinders, 8-track tapes, or those old 5 ¼-inch floppies.) But as long as you’re literate, you don’t need any special equipment to read a printed or written document.

Cutting energy use

Manufacturing paper is an energy-intensive process, but paper companies are making great strides in reducing energy use.

One way they’re doing that is by generating their own energy from the manufacturing process. For instance, Klug’s company, Glatfelter, routinely uses tree bark and other waste as fuel in its boilers.
“That not only provides steam and electricity to run the process, but helps convert the black liquor”— chemicals created during processing—“to white liquor,” says Michael Dombrowski, energy efficiency manager for Glatfelter’s specialty papers business unit. The white liquor can then be re-used to process more wood. This earns renewable energy credits that Glatfelter can sell to other companies, according to Dombrowski.

The AF&PA has set a goal to reduce greenhouse gases industry-wide by 15 percent or more between 2005 and 2020. In addition, recent EPA regulations require manufacturers to reduce emissions from coal between now and 2017. That’s driving many paper companies to become more efficient. Glatfelter, for instance, has been working to meet the goals in part by burning less fuel.

“We’ve been very successful at doing that,” says Dombrowski. For instance, in Glatfelter’s Ohio plant, Dombrowski says they burned 13 percent less coal in 2012 than they did in 2009. “To make that even more interesting, we did that while making 10 percent more paper,” he says.

Paper making is also water-intensive, but Glatfelter and the industry as a whole strive to re-use as much water as possible. The AF&PA says its forest-product member companies return nearly 90 percent of the water they use back to streams.

Looked at from just about any angle, there’s a lot about paper to feel good about. It’s been around for centuries, and it looks like it will stay for many more.