The Path of Paper: Information & Alternatives
Unfortunately, the paper making process is polluting at every stage of pulping and production. Not only do tree farms with monocrops (only 1 or 2 types of trees growing) degrade the land, they also do not provide suitable habitat or food for many organisms. This means that we are taking up a lot of land, resources, and people power just to grow the trees necessary for paper making. The next step after harvest is the pulping process, which in most cases involves giant piles of wood chips dumped on the ground with chemicals poured on top that remove the lignins from the wood, which allows the wood to be made flexible and not stiff. These chemicals that are dumped on filter through the wood chips and leach into the soil and groundwater. The actual paper making process after pulping the wood uses at least 10 liters of water to make one standard sheet of paper. Not only does it use intensive amounts of water and energy to make a single sheet of paper, but most paper mills heavily bleach the paper substrate with chlorine compounds. When the paper product has reached the end of its use, the bleaches, inks, and dyes from the paper all have the potential to leach into the ground or air depending on the disposal.
Ok, now that I got super science-y (let’s pretend that is a word), here are some straight facts from the Environmental Protection Agencies reports over the years:
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, discarded paper and cardboard make up around 26% (67 million tons) of the 258 million tons of solid waste generated in 2014.
Paper waste has the potential to release toxic inks and dyes into the groundwater when buried or into the air when burned.
The pulp and paper industry uses more water to produce a ton of paper product than any other industry.
Pulp and paper generates the sixth largest amount of industrial air, water, and land emissions in the United States, releasing 79,000 tonnes of industrial pollutants in 2015. Of this total waste released by the pulp and paper industry in the U.S., 66% was released into the air, 10% into water and 24% onto land according to the 2017 EPA Toxic Release Report.
Recycling 1 ton of paper saves around 682.5 gallons of oil, 26,500 liters of water and 17 trees.
I don’t want you to get the idea that I support plastic in place of paper products, I just want to point out that if we truly want to make large steps towards sustainability we must make an accelerated change towards resources that don’t require heavy pesticide use, water, or growing time and don’t have to be chemically altered to be useful in making paper products.
So if I shouldn’t use plastic and now you are telling me paper isn’t the solution, what do I use?
There are SO many options! Obviously, reusable containers are going to be the best target goal. Shopping at bulk stores, participating in glass container return systems, or finding local stores/bakeries/butchers who will allow you to bring in your own containers is going to be more sustainable and resource conserving than a paper alternative.
But let's be honest, society is not going to eliminate packaging ever so we need to be using bio-materials that are quick growing and do not consume high amounts of energy, water, or pesticides. Many alternatives even replenish soil that would not be able to grow or support life due to high levels of pollution, heavy metals, or just degraded agricultural land! So what’s out there?
Hemp pulp is much better for paper than wood pulp due to the fact that it lasts longer, can be recycled more times, and it doesn’t require bleaching or chemical additives during pulping. Hemp was used for 75-90% of paper production until we reached the 20th century, where textile and newspaper companies lobbied for hemp to be banned and prohibited. Hemp also can provide resources with every part of the plant, and it’s unique stem and root structure is able to pull and remove heavy metals from soils. Hemp has the potential to restore land all over the world, while providing an invaluable resource our ancestors knew was renewable and stronger.
Bagasse is the residue left after the juice is extracted from the sugarcane. The crushed remnants contain 45 percent cellulose, 28 percent pentosans, 20 percent lignin*, 5 percent sugar, and 2 percent minerals. Basically what all of this means is that the material is already sturdy and flexible enough to be turned into paper without the addition of chemicals or other resources.
*Lignin in plants makes them rigid, which is why during paper pulping there is often chemicals poured onto the piles which degrade the lignin while leaving cellulose. This makes strong, but flexible paper that can be used for many different purposes.
Bamboo paper is made straight from the plant, making it a very renewable source. The bamboo plant thrives in a depleted soil mixture, which means we repurpose abandoned land to make our paper products, eliminating the “need” for deforestation and the destruction/prevention of many ecosystems. Bamboo paper can be bleached during the process, but it is just as strong unbleached and doesn’t structurally require any added chemicals.
Kenaf Is an African hibiscus that has durable fibres, and is already being used as a paper replacement around the world. Not only is the plant product 100% recyclable, the plant also replenishes the soil that it is grown in by aerating it and repelling weeds. Kenaf is able to grow 12-18 feet in 150 days and has less lignin than wood sources, which makes it an extremely renewable resource that is not resource consuming from growing, to harvest, to pulping and paper making.
If you made it through this long and informative post, congratulations and thank you! There is not a lot of information online right now about how paper is made, or what our better alternatives are, so it is important to at least get this topic on our radar.
We must still support the move away from plastic towards reusable or paper options, but we also must push for truly sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives to make a systematic change for our future!