Why is paper’s carbon footprint so large?

There are five stages in the life-cycle of paper products and they all cause carbon emissions.

1. Sourcing

When trees are cut from forests, the store of carbon in trees and in the soil is reduced. This is particularly a problem when logging occurs in natural forests which have not been cut before and, incredibly, remaining natural forests are still cleared to produce paper and other wood-based commodities. Forest carbon loss calculations are complex. Responsible forest management can protect forest carbon, but it’s a no-brainer to recognise that clearcutting a forest reduces the carbon stored in it. Some of the worst paper industry cases are in places like Indonesia or Russia, where deep peat soils, which store vast quantities of carbon, are degraded by logging and draining, emitting huge amounts of carbon.

2. Pulping

Knock on wood – it’s hard! Pulping it uses a lot of energy – you need as much energy to make a tonne of paper as you do to make a tonne of steel. Pulp is made either mechanically, by literally smashing or shredding it to smithereens, or chemically, by chipping it then stewing it in a chemical soup. Either way, pulp mills are huge engineering works and they require major energy supplies. Some mills use renewable energy sources, but many use wood (which takes us back to sourcing) or fossil fuels, and these mean yet more carbon emissions. Renewables tend to have a lower footprint than fossil based materials such as steel and concrete. However, paper is still very resource intensive.

The increasing use of wood based biomass, which will be a major driver for wood use over the next 3 decades, can also be problematic. By 2050, annual wood demand for energy could reach 6-8 billion m3, which would require more than twice the wood removed for all uses today. This clearly poses a challenge for sustainable land-use planning. Badly managed bioenergy production can destroy valuable ecosystems, undermine food and water security, harm rural communities and prolong wasteful energy consumption.

3. Transport

The concept of ‘food miles’ is familiar, but how many miles have the fibres in the paper you use travelled? In Europe, we import pulp and paper from Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, Chile, Canada the USA and most other corners of the globe where trees grow. We ship waste paper to China then import it back again as packaging. Almost all of that transportation and distribution is fueled by carbon emitting fossil fuels.

4. Use

Raw paper from mills supplies a vast industry of ‘converters’, who make it into useful things, like cardboard boxes, paper bags, food packages, sanitary materials, office products and envelopes. The print industry does huge runs of catalogues, magazines, leaflets and books. These are distributed to retailers or in the mail, making their way into businesses and homes where they finally serve their purpose. The carbon footprint of all of these processes is part of the footprint of the paper we use.

5. Disposal

Almost as soon as paper has completed its journey to us, its end user, we throw it away. After glancing at the report, ripping open the package or picking the junk mail off the mat, we chuck it into the bin. In Europe and America, paper and cardboard is the single biggest component of domestic waste streams. The richer a country is, the bigger proportion of its waste is made up of paper. Garbage trucks use fossil fuels to run, and even though recycling rates have increased in recent years, we are still sending at least a quarter of the paper we use to landfill sites to rot. Decomposing paper turns to either carbon dioxide or methane, which is an even more damaging greenhouse gas