- What are the environmental impacts associated with paper packaging?
Each year the equivalent of three billion trees are cut down to produce paper packaging, much of which comes from Ancient and Endangered Forests. Projections indicate that by 2025, demand for paper packaging will grow by over 20%, and so will its impact on forests. This is directly at odds with imperatives for resolving the current climate and biodiversity crises. Just as single use plastic packaging has a large impact from a carbon and nature perspective, so too does single use paper packaging when virgin forest fibre is used, especially when it’s from the world’s remaining Ancient and Endangered Forests. Ancient and Endangered Forest areas have high conservation and carbon value, and provide habitat for threatened or endangered species such as tigers, orangutans, elephants, woodland caribou and wolverine. When these forests are cut down, they take centuries to grow back to their original state and sometimes never regain the full suite of ecological values that they once possessed. This means that these forests are no longer able to provide the benefits they once did, including sustaining biodiversity, regulating the temperature, filtering rainfall and climatic conditions, and absorbing carbon.
In addition to impacts on the world’s remaining Ancient and Endangered Forests, the paper manufacturing process (which includes paper packaging) involves using huge amounts of energy. In fact, it’s estimated that the global paper industry uses 5% of the world’s industrial energy and contributes 2% of direct global industrial carbon emissions1. The vast majority of these carbon impacts are created when trees are logged.
Large quantities of water are also required throughout the manufacturing process. Just one medium-sized corrugated cardboard box requires approximately 20 litres of water to make. During a time when many parts of the world are facing water shortages, and many communities do not have access to clean drinking water, it is imperative that we reduce water impacts associated with the production of commodities, including single use paper packaging. It is estimated that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages2.
Finally, harsh chemicals are also used in the production of paper, including sodium hydroxide, sodium sulphide, and chlorine dioxide, which produces organochlorines. Chemicals such as chlorine dioxide produce what are known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), and these highly toxic substances can remain in the environment for decades before breaking down. POPs also bioaccumulate in the body’s tissues, meaning that the toxic effect continues to build as other POPs are absorbed. As they bioaccumulate, POPs can move up the food chain affecting human health. They have known impacts on human’s reproductive system and have been associated with breast cancer.
Overall, it’s important to remember that paper packaging does have serious impacts – on forests and biodiversity, our ability to fight climate change – as well as harmful pollution and significant water use.
- Why are forests important?
Forests are essential to the health of the Earth’s species, climate and biodiversity. They provide at least 30% of the emissions reductions needed to tackle the climate crisis, are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, and play an important role regulating rainfall patterns.
Forests, alongside oceans, are the lungs of the planet – they create oxygen and purify our air. They are also home to people – around the world millions of indigenous and other local communities live in forests and depend on them for cultural and spiritual practices, food security, medicine and livelihoods.
Recent virus pandemics have underscored how critical forests are to preventing and containing pandemics. A growing body of science shows that the degradation of intact ecosystems creates dangerous conditions for new diseases that pose unprecedented threats to humanity. Around 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they are passed from animals to humans as a result of close proximity and interaction, fuelled by wildlife trade and deforestation. Ebola, SARS, MERS, H1N1, and COVID-19 are all zoonotic diseases that have caused significant damage to human health, including high mortality rates.
A world without forests is a bleak future for humanity, and an even bleaker one for wildlife. A recent study showed that wildlife populations have declined by 60% since 1970, largely due to habitat loss, and that the trend continues unabated3. Luckily solutions exist now to take the pressure off the world’s forests, and keep humans and wildlife safe!
- Trees are renewable, aren’t they?
We often hear that trees are a renewable resource, and they are…kind of. Trees certainly can be cut and replanted and grow and be cut again. However, once a natural forest is harvested, it may never return to its natural state. It may never be able to store as much carbon in its vegetation and soils, and may never again be home to sensitive wildlife species that are extirpated once industrial logging takes place.
Ancient and Endangered Forests are complex ecosystems that have developed over millennia and are essential to sustaining the health of the Earth’s species and to stabilizing the climate. While trees may be able to be replanted, Ancient and Endangered Forests are irreplaceable. When we log these forests for products such as packaging, we undermine our own ability to regulate the climate and prevent further species extinctions. It is estimated that 30% of the climate solution lies within forests. In addition, they filter fresh water, prevent flooding, and provide home to humans and millions of other species.
To fundamentally shift the trajectory we are currently on, we need to greatly reduce our reliance on forest fibre and look to recycled fibres and low-impact next generation fibre solutions for our paper and packaging needs.
- Is paper packaging a good substitute for plastic packaging?
Many people assume that paper packaging is a benign replacement to single use plastic packaging, which is currently wreaking havoc on marine mammals and ecosystems alike. While it is imperative that single use plastic pollution be addressed immediately, paper packaging made of virgin forest fibre also has significant impacts on the environment. As such, we need to ensure that companies do not choose solutions that have unintended consequences and result in more devastated forest landscapes. Rather than replacing plastic pollution with forest destruction, we need to implement real, lasting solutions that address our packaging problem without further damaging the planet in the process. In short, we need to change the system.
Recycled fibre has already been proven to be an effective fibre source for packaging. In addition, Next Generation fibre solutions, such as wheat straw and other agricultural residues, are increasingly available for use in packaging. These solutions ensure we keep forests standing, ditch plastic, protect our climate, and keep each other safe. For a list of existing products, see Canopy’s EcoPaper Database.
Canopy believes that we need to move away from single use products altogether in order to tackle the multiples crises our planet faces. This can be achieved by eliminating unnecessary packaging in general, and the overwhelming majority of single use products specifically. Instead, we can invest in the production and use of reusable packaging, which has already been piloted by multiple companies. We encourage brands and packaging producers to work together to implement solutions that reduce impacts on our oceans AND our forests.
- Isn’t paper packaging recycled? What’s better, recycled or recyclable?
Packaging containing recycled content, and packaging that is recyclable are two different things, and the difference is important. While most paper packaging can be recycled, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been made with 100% recycled fibre, which is the most sustainable choice. Paper packaging made of virgin forest fibre has significant impacts on the world’s remaining high-carbon, highly-biodiverse Ancient and Endangered Forests. Given the critical role these forests play in mitigating and adapting to climate change, and in maintaining biodiversity, it’s important that we source more sustainable fibre inputs.
Using recycled content can significantly improve the sustainability of paper packaging. One tonne of 100% recycled paperboard saves 3,800 kwh of energy and creates 4. Using 100% recycled content to produce packaging also guarantees that no new forest fibre was used to manufacture it. Opting specifically for post-consumer recycled content provides even greater benefits by diverting materials away from landfills.
Canopy encourages all our partners to prioritize the use of recycled fibres in their packaging, with a preference for post-consumer recycled content to further reduce waste, as well as conserve the world’s forests and terrestrial biodiversity.
- How can choosing alternative fibre for packaging reduce your company’s carbon emissions?
Choosing lower impact materials for packaging, such as recycled or post-consumer recycled fibre or Next Generation fibres, including agricultural residue such as wheat straw, can significantly lower carbon emissions. For instance, one tonne of 100% recycled paperboard produces roughly 80% less greenhouse gas emissions than the same amount of virgin paperboard. The carbon footprint of wheat straw residue pulp is 76% lower than the average carbon footprint of virgin forest fibre5.
Cutting down on packaging size and weight through innovative packaging and systems design can also save on carbon emissions, as well as shipping and supply costs. It’s a win for the planet, and a win for a company’s bottom line.
Overall, life cycle analyses show that 100% recycled and low impact alternative fibres have a much lighter environmental footprint. During a time when many companies are shifting away from single use plastic to paper packaging, Canopy strongly encourages consumers to choose low impact alternatives in order to minimize negative impacts on our planet.