When thinking about sustainability, it’s very easy to focus on end-of-life; what can be done with a material when it can’t be used anymore? Can it be recycled, composted, or repurposed?
That could explain why everyone loves paper - it’s recyclable and will biodegrade naturally if littered. But, end-of-life is only part of the story. What if the production of a material uses excessive amounts of power? What if it uses (and potentially pollutes) vast quantities of fresh water in its production? What if it requires the use of toxic bleaches too?
By just looking at the end-of-use part of a product lifecycle, you’re only seeing a small part of the story and when it comes to paper there are some important considerations and questions.
It's important to ask where all the fibre is going to come from to feed the world’s growing obsession with paper? Some will come from recycling, but the remainder will come from the monoculture pine plantations which are rapidly displacing native forests and rain forests.
After use, even though paper and paperboard can be recycled a number of times, discarded paper and paperboard make up roughly 26% of solid municipal waste in landfill sites where they will emit methane if they break down.
Image courtesy of Sendle's 2022 'Earth Day' campaign to raise awareness of cardboard packaging waste.
Papermaking is also very thirsty work. For every tonne of paper made, 99 tonnes of water are used to make it. Eventually, this water is spat back out into the waterways somewhat the worse for use. Exactly how much worse has become an issue of debate between paper manufacturers and their environmental watchdogs. Source: NZGeographic
Because the world demands mostly pristine white paper there’s also an extensive bleaching process involved and that, almost universally, uses a chlorine in some form. Unfortunately, chlorine has a habit of combining with some of the organic compounds it’s working on to produce a range of substances called organochlorines. While many organochlorines are relatively harmless, some are carcinogens and others are known to cause chromosomal damage. Inevitably, some of these chemicals end up in the water used by mills where bleaching is carried out, and then into our waterways.
Another consideration is that once in use, paper and card are relatively heavy materials to ship around the world. They’re also not always totally fit for purpose and when they allow moisture and oxygen through, the contents are likely to be damaged ….thus leading to more waste.
So, if you do have to use tissue, paper or card, do it responsibly and ask the following first;
- Firstly, do you really need those layers of tissue paper?
- Does it really need to be white paper?
- Does it come from FSC certified sources?
- Can you use recycled paper? And if so, is it FSC certified recycled?
- Does it contain PFAs? If it’s being used in contact with food, it may have PFAs added to make it moisture/oil resistant. PFAs are ‘forever chemicals’ and are in the process of being banned by countries around the world