Sustainability: Paper - a Very Special Material

Author: Hannes Rügheimer

Dec 20, 2023 Sustainability

Almost every second industrially felled tree worldwide is processed into paper. In industrialized countries, paper consumption is immense and by no means declining – packaging materials and household paper have long since compensated for the decline in telephone books and mail-order catalogs. This makes it all the more important to pay as much attention as possible to sustainability in our paper consumption.

You might think that global paper consumption is on the decline. After all, telephone books and mail-order catalogs have long since been replaced by online offerings, newspaper and magazine circulations are decreasing, and many emails come with cautionary notes along the lines of “Please consider whether you really need to print this message on paper.” Tablets reduce the need to handle content on paper for reading or commenting purposes.
But this assumption is deceptive. In fact, global paper consumption is growing relentlessly. The World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) reports that around 130 million tons of paper were produced and consumed around the globe in 1970. By 2005, this number had risen to 367 million tons, and by 2019 to 415 million tons. And there have been no indications of a decline since then.
Efforts to promote more environmentally conscious behavior also increase paper consumption
Industrialized countries in particular consume a lot of paper. The German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) reports that while two-thirds of the global population only have an average of around 20 kilograms per capita at their disposal, 14 percent of the global population consumes more than half of the global paper production at over 125 kilograms per capita.
The result: Almost every second industrially felled tree worldwide is processed into paper. The declines in telephone books, catalogs, newspapers, and magazines mentioned above are offset by massive growth in the packaging sector. This is driven by the boom in online shopping, but also by the results of efforts to be more environmentally conscious: A lot of plastic packaging is now being replaced by paper alternatives – from outer packaging for products to disposable coffee cups. This in turn contributes to an increase in the consumption of paper. The importance of so-called household paper – i.e. kitchen towels or toilet paper – should not be underestimated either.
Around 90 percent of the paper produced has a short lifespan or period of use. It is only used once or for short periods before being disposed of. Given these facts, it certainly makes sense to reconsider your own paper consumption, return used paper to the waste paper collection, and use recycled paper wherever possible.
The WWF lists other tips for saving paper that are kind of obvious, but are still too rarely followed: Try to print on both sides of the paper if printing something cannot be avoided, use misprinted paper to jot down notes, bring tote bags instead of using paper bags when shopping, and bring your own thermo mug to the coffee shop.
Which eco-labels can you trust?
Such a large market naturally also harbors the risk that not everyone involved will adhere to the applicable laws and rules. The WWF, for example, warns that considerable quantities of paper and precursor pulp enter the EU from potentially illegal sources every year.
People who want to make their paper consumption as sustainable as possible have to look closely. However, even motivated consumers and users quickly stumble upon a confusing jungle of environmental labels and certificates. Which of them can you trust?
● The FSC label ( www​.fsc​.org ) is generally considered to be meaningful and trustworthy. The abbreviation stands for Forest Stewardship Council, an international certification system for forestry. It identifies wood and paper products that come from responsibly managed forests – i.e. according to defined ecological and social criteria. This includes, for example, that a forest certified with the FSC label is free of genetically modified plants. FSC-certified wood and paper are not ecologically perfect either – but the label is considered by far the most demanding on the international market.
● People can also take their cue from the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN, www​.globalecolabelling​.net ). Members include the “EU Eco Label”, the US labels “Ecologo” and “Epeat”, the “Environmental Quality Guarantee Award” awarded in Catalonia, the Swedish “Good Environmental Choice”, the Ukrainian “Green Crane”, the Dutch labels “Milieukeur” and “On the Way to PlanetProof”, as well as several others that are listed on the GEN website. The list also includes the “Blue Angel” eco-label, supported by the German government, which provides guidance for recycled paper products. Recycled paper certified with the Blue Angel label is made from 100% waste paper and is also produced without chlorine-based bleaching agents or other chemicals.
“Paper is a vivid example of effects that we see time and again in connection with sustainability issues,” comments Sebastian Bartels, Senior Vice President and Head of Global Sustainability Services at DEKRA SE: “What you improve on one side can have unintended effects elsewhere.” However, consumers in particular should be able to rely on manufacturers to manage the sustainability of their products. This also applies to paper and other wood products.
“Another example is the development of replacing plastic packaging with paper packaging. This initially sounds like a sensible and environmentally friendly improvement but is often only possible if the paper is given a film coating. Although this coating is very thin, it often means that the paper can no longer be recycled. In that case, the collection and recycling of plastic packaging might have been better,” says Sebastian Bartels.
“With its Green Claims Directive, the EU Commission is at least working towards making labels and certifications more reliable and meaningful,” explains the Head of DEKRA’s Corporate Focus Area Sustainability Services. “Climate protection and product sustainability are particularly dependent on honesty, trust, and transparency. In reality, consumers and business customers hardly have a chance to check all the information themselves. This is where independent and accredited verifiers and certifiers such as DEKRA offer enormous added value in many areas of everyday life and supply chains.”
DEKRA supports companies on their way to greater sustainability
Sustainable energy generation and energy sources, sustainable supply chains, or product sustainability – these are just a few examples of the measures companies are taking to improve their climate and environmental footprint. The motivation comes partly from their own initiative, for example when companies set themselves stricter ESG targets than required by law. On the other hand, there are also clear guidelines from the EU Commission and the respective national legislators. They are derived from the “EU Green Deal”, the EU taxonomy, and individual directives such as the CSRD (Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive – the obligation to prepare ESG reports). Investors are now also defining clear expectations regarding the sustainable development of the companies in which they invest. In addition to climate protection, these generally also address environmental protection, health and safety, and social standards in the supply chains.
The specific services that DEKRA offers its customers in the field of sustainability include support in corporate and product sustainability, climate assessments, auditing of sustainability reports, and training on sustainability topics. Of course, the testing or certification of wind and solar technology, battery storage, or hydrogen are also among DEKRA’s core tasks.
Further information can be found here .