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Paper as a renewable substitute for other materials

Paper as a renewable substitute for other materials
Renee Yardley
March, 14 2019

Modern society and its environmental impact

Humanity is more aware than ever of its own impacts on the environment, given increased exposure to information in a modern media landscape. The most recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) numbers revealed that Americans produce over four pounds of trash per day, per person.

Increasingly, consumers are concerned with living more mindfully and sustainably where possible. As evidenced in a 2018 report by Nielsen, 81 per cent of global consumers surveyed feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment.

Businesses taking a stand against synthetic materials

With media reports attesting to the impact of synthetic materials on our planet (for example with the growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch), consumers have expressed concern with the overuse of synthetics in our day to day lives. Many businesses globally have pledged to lessen their environmental impact by reducing the use of non-renewable materials in their products, including companies like Samsung, Wal Mart, and Ikea.

With some global consumers having voiced their preference for packaging made from renewable materials like paper, some of the world’s largest brands have pledged to use substitutes for synthetic materials in their products (either with packaging alternatives like Nestle and PepsiCo with Loop, or through strategic partnerships like McDonalds and Coca Cola with Closed Partners, or Starbucks with Sustana Fiber).

The circularity of renewable materials like paper

Many consumers have advocated for a circular economy where use of renewable materials – as well as reuse and recycling of existing materials – figure into the manufacturing of new products. In a circular economy, new products can be created from old products such that manufacturing systems require few natural resources for as minimal an environmental impact as possible. Conversely in a linear economy (or traditional “one and done” model) new products require extraction of new environmental resources for production.

A 2018 study of renewable materials by the Swedish Environmental Research Institute identified paper as having a comparatively lower environmental impact than other materials throughout its entire life cycle, from raw sourcing to production through to waste management.

When responsibly sourced, paper originates from managed forests which are continuously replenished, however raw materials can also be sourced from recycling systems and paper can be reused to make new paper products up to seven times. Post-consumer recycled paper (as used in Rolland products) embodies the circular economy: a life cycle assessment (LCA) undertaken by research and consulting firm AGÉCO revealed Rolland’s manufacturing to have a lower environmental impact than other paper production processes in North America.

Paper collection and recycling are far more energy efficient than virgin fiber production, and paper is one of the most recycled materials on earth: the American Forest & Paper Association reports that 96 per cent of Americans have access to community paper recycling programs.

Aside from paper production, transportation and recycling using less energy, paper also biodegrades more quickly and efficiently at end of life when compared to synthetics.

Their inability to be recycled efficiently and low biodegradability results in synthetics being less “circular” than paper. To be as sustainable as possible, manufacturers using synthetic materials can strive (as many have already) to limit the creation of single-use products, to use materials which can be recycled efficiently and to reuse existing materials wherever possible.

Sustainability and the future of paper systems

Although paper systems do have a lower impact than synthetics, the recycling industry is nonetheless complex and in the process of evolving. Paper sustainability can be impacted by government regulation, market demand and recycling standards. However, high recyclability, innovations in manufacturing and government initiatives aimed at improving manufacturing (REMADE projects for example) suggest that paper systems are bound to become sustainable. 

So long as we see increases in paper as a substitute for other materials in our consumption systems, this will contribute to a more sustainable society, and renewable materials like paper will undoubtedly contribute to humanity’s sustainable future.