What’s In the Box? Part 1

Market pulp. This may be one of the least sexy commodities in the world, but it goes into making the paper boxes that sexier goods like clothing and electronics are shipped in, that your milk and juice cartons are made with, that take-out food gets served in and that your cosmetics and pharmaceuticals come packaged in. Market pulp is not quite paper yet. It’s kind of what it sounds like – a mash, primarily made of trees (currently)*, that have been chipped and then either ground up or chemically disintegrated to get the cellulosic fibres for making paper (or viscose fabrics).

Market pulp gets shipped all over the world. So, packaging made in the US or China (the two largest packaging producers in the world[1]) is very likely to have pulp originating from Ancient and Endangered Forests in other countries, such as Canada, Brazil or Indonesia. Forty-eight percent of corrugated boxes produced in the US contain recycled fibres[2]. China decreased recovered paper imports by 47% in 2018[3], which is projected to result in the country increasing imports of market pulp to fill the gap[4]. The non-recycled paper inputs are primarily made from trees that have been chipped (either from whole logs or from sawmill waste) and pulped for paper; and with those trees goes their carbon storage capacity, the habitat for animals and the ecosystem services like rainfall regulation that they provided for the world.

Canopy works on conservation of forests globally. Our Pack4Good campaign was recently launched to help brands improve their ecological footprint by greening their paper packaging footprint. Many companies currently don’t know the source of their paper packaging. It’s a global supply chain fed by literally hundreds of pulp and paper mills. By working with Canopy, our corporate partners become knowledgeable about their paper sourcing and make choices to help protect carbon rich endangered forests, and the ancient forests of the world.

A common refrain of misinformation heard by paper procurement and sustainability directors who are greening their companies’ packaging is that trees are a renewable resource and that all paper packaging is sustainable because it is recyclable and/or made from recycled paper – but a lot of packaging also contains virgin tree pulp that is from much sketchier sources, so it’s good to be clear on what’s in the box:

  • When are trees NOT a renewable resource? – A forest is greater than the sum of its parts, so trees are one important life form within a whole ecosystem that is held together through complex interactions between species and elements. And while trees may regrow over time, once species that depend on the ecosystem go extinct, they certainly don’t regrow. Orangutans in Indonesia and Woodland Caribou in Canada are examples of species that are endangered because of logging of their habitat. Logging is acknowledged by government of Canada scientists as one of the primary causes of caribou habitat degradation and is widely acknowledged by scientists to have caused precipitous declines in Orangutan populations.
  • When is a forest with 150 – 200-year-old trees “Ancient”? – An ancient forest is not defined by the age of the individual trees but refers instead to the forest ecosystem. For example, while boreal forest trees will grow up to 80-200 years old, the forest ecosystem that has evolved there is over 8000 years old and vast swaths have never been industrially logged before. The evolved ecosystem of the boreal is older than the pyramids. In the tropics the ecosystems reflect literally millions of years of evolutionary complexity. Plantations and young rotation tree farms don’t perform like natural forests.
  • Deforestation and forest degradation are both bad – Deforestation is terrible. Forests are cleared and the land converted for other uses like cattle ranching, eucalyptus plantations, oil fields, roads or suburbs depending on the region. When ancient forest ecosystems are clearcut and logs taken to mills it removes habitat, water regulation, stored carbon and the next generation of soil. In many parts of the tropics and subtropics deforestation and conversion to plantations is the primary destructive force. In temperate zones including Canada, forest degradation is the primary issue as fully functioning intact ecosystems are fragmented and younger replanted young forests do not perform the same as habitat or for climate regulation.

That’s what’s at stake when sourcing for packaging. Fortunately, something can be done about it.

Improving our Packaging Footprint

Canopy supports the manufacturing of packaging made with recycled fibre or from forests that were logged long ago and were replanted and the logging practices are now certified through FSC. We are impressed by the ways many companies have found to reduce the amount of packaging they use, through better design, efficient logistics systems and re-usable boxes and bags. We encourage more of this world-saving creativity. And we are excited by the newer and cleaner technologies that have been developed for processing agricultural fibres into pulp and paper (such as wheat straw, hemp and flax straw, banana tree stem and miscanthus grass).

Canopy is in the process of adding Ancient and Endangered Forest friendly paper packaging options to our EcoPaper Database (EPD). Any producers who have a 100% recycled and/or recycled and FSC certified packaging or agricultural fibre alternatives like wheat straw-based packaging can contact Canopy to have it added to the range of good choices available to brands looking for environmentally preferable options.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of What’s in the box?


[1] https://www.statista.com/topics/1701/paper-industry/

[2] https://www.corrugated.org/wp-content/uploads/PDFs/White_Papers/CPA_Recycling_White_Paper_August2016.pdf

[3] https://www.recyclingtoday.com/article/risi-china-conference-paper-recycling-exporting-india/

[4] https://paper360.tappi.org/2018/10/27/will-chinas-recovered-paper-problem-become-your-problem/

* market pulp available domestically can include recycled content