It makes sense that Gen Z and Millennials are the most concerned about climate change and sustainability—their futures (and their children’s futures) depend on the health of the planet. And although the paper industry may have had a bad rap in the past, the picture is much brighter today when it comes to sustainability efforts and environmental awareness.

Is the paper industry sustainable?

Yes! Paper products are made from trees, a naturally renewable resource, and from recycled paper. Additionally, 80% of U.S. paper mills are using recycled fibers for newspaper, paper towels, and packaging materials at their sites. Paper is also a “circular product”—more on that below.

How is it sustainable?

Paper is a renewable resource so long as it’s been sourced from a responsibly managed forest. This means that not only are trees replanted after harvesting, but that natural habitats, ecosystems, rivers and streams, and at-risk species are protected, and that the effects of erosion are minimized.

What’s a circular product and how does it affect sustainability efforts?

A circular product is one that is designed to be reused, renewed, and recycled. Paper is a renewable, raw material that is used to create recyclable products, reducing waste as much as possible. There’s also little, if any, waste when a tree is harvested because new trees are planted in its place, and the byproducts of harvesting, wood chips and scrap pieces, are used to create pulp.

By reducing waste, reusing materials (such as recycled paper or fibers), planting more trees than are harvested (which protects the forest’s ecosystem), and using byproducts as bioenergy, the paper industry promotes sustainability at all stages of paper’s production cycle.

Did you know? Healthy forests mitigate climate change by binding CO2 and preventing it from entering the atmosphere.

What’s the paper industry currently doing to promote sustainability?

As discussed above, paper is a raw, renewable resource and a circular product, which gives our industry the capability to create impactful change for generations to come.

Here are a few ways in which the industry focuses its sustainability efforts:

  • Sustainable forest management
  • More efficient manufacturing practices
  • Using renewable bioenergy
  • Water management
  • Recycling paper—a lot of paper!

Furthermore, the American Forestry and Paper Association has officially adopted goals for the industry to become leaner, cleaner, and greener by 2030:

  1. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come primarily from burning fossil fuels in paper mills and manufacturing sites, electricity, and transportation.
    Goal: Further reduce the 2020 goal by an additional 26%, translating to a 50% decrease from the 2005 baseline measurement.
  2. Advance the ways we repurpose waste. This refers to the pulp and paper industry being a “circular value chain” and paper a circular product.
    Goal: Create innovative solutions for products, packaging materials, and the manufacturing process; increase the use of recycled paper, fiber, and wood byproducts by 50% across the industry; and increase the amount of recyclable and/or compostable packaging products.
  3. Increase sustainable water management efforts. It’s no secret that the paper industry uses a lot of water throughout its manufacturing process. Water is used for creating pulp from wood chips, for heat transfer, and for washing wood pulp and its machinery; and, of course, wastewater is produced as a result of all these processes.
    Goal: Develop and utilize an industry-specific tool that focuses on a watershed approach to water management at the local level; keep increasing the number of companies to utilize this tool by 2030 and beyond.Did you know? American Forestry and Paper Association member companies have reduced water usage by 8% since the year 2005.
  4. Increase the resiliency of our forests. Currently, there are forestry management initiatives including harvesting and sourcing from responsibly managed forests, planting replacement trees, and protecting the forests’ ecosystems and natural environment.
    Goal: investing in research and education; supporting conservation and restoration efforts; increasing the transparency for responsible sourcing.

*These goals were created by the American Forest and Paper Association and its member companies.

Did you know? More than 1 billion trees are planted each year in the United States.

We know there’s always more work to be done when it comes to energy efficiency, resource conservation, reducing waste, innovating technologies, and creating a healthier planet for future generations. And that’s why the industry needs engineers like you who have the determination and problem-solving skills to make lasting change for the greater good, for the health of the planet, and for well-being of generations to come.

If this topic inspires you, we’d love to hear about it! Learn more about how we help engineering students here.