In the 1980s, environmental groups began determinedly to beat up on this industry. In some cases, the beatings were deserved. In other cases, science was beginning to uncover deleterious stuff that no one new about beforehand. Remember elemental chlorine and dioxin--the infamous "d-word?"
In every case of getting beat up because of environmental failings, the industry took corrective action. Without exception. Yes, certain chemicals, processes and practices were harmful. But no, those things are not still operative. The pulp and paper industry cleaned itself up in a remarkable way.
After a couple of decades of getting slammed as bad guys, Gary M. Scott thinks it is time for some de-slamming. He is chair of the paper and bioprocess engineering department at the State University of New York college of environmental science and forestry. He sees five areas the pulp and paper industry can shout about.
1. The industry does not contribute to deforestation. Of the fiber used for papermaking, 39% comes from recycled paper. Only 36% of timber harvested in the US is used to make paper and board. Most of the remaining wood fiber is obtained through forest thinning (removing undesirable trees) or from lumber milling residues. Each year, the amount of wood harvested from US forests is less than annual forest growth. About 73% of deforestation in tropical areas is for agriculture, mainly for producing palm oil, soybeans and pasture for beef animals.
2. In mills that use wood as raw material, almost every component of the tree is made into something useful. Bark is burned for energy production. In the most common pulping process, chemicals are regenerated and re-used, and wood byproducts in the spent pulp chemicals are burned for energy. Through conservation measures and biomass energy production, the industry has reduced its carbon footprint per ton of product by more than 55% since 1972.
3. Paper is one the most-recycled materials in the world. In the US in 2015, about 67% of all paper was recovered for reuse. According to the EPA, more paper is recovered from the municipal solid waste stream than glass, plastic, steel and aluminum combined by weight.
4. The digital revolution is not making paper obsolete. The US paper industry produces about 78 million tons of paper per year to satisfy the demand for newspapers, books, letter mail, personal care items, tissue, packaging, building materials and toys and games.
5. Innovation is proceeding rapidly in the paper industry. New technologies are spurring new uses for paper and co-products such as transportation fuel and biodegradable plastics. Nanocellulose, an extremely lightweight material made from wood fiber, has many potential uses, as does another emerging technology: cheap electronic circuits that can be printed on paper. On the fuel front, the US Department of Energy has funded 13 projects that are producing ethanol and renewable hydrocarbons from wood.
Scott concludes his observations on push-back by saying , "I expect that in the future, paper mills will produce a wide range of products such as transportation fuels, adhesives, chemicals and other materials--serving society's needs without a drop of oil."
Chuck Swann is Senior Editor of Paperitalo Publications.