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Paper industry still needs to improve its PR

 

by David Fulchiron

 

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time. We recognise it as a challenge facing governments, industries and citizens around the world. The paper industry generally has a bad press, being perceived as a huge consumer of wood, energy, water and a big generator of CO2. And yes, like many other products, paper has an impact on the environment: the direct emissions from the pulp and paper industry represent about 40 million tonnes of CO2 annually, roughly 1 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU (source: CEPI). There is no doubt that, although its CO2 efficiency has improved by 29 percent since 1990 (source: CEPI), members of the paper industry have more work to do in order to reduce their CO2 emissions.

 

But they also need to do a better job at communicating about what the industry does well and the role paper plays in the life cycle of our forests. Through absence of communication, we paper professionals have let the belief grow that our product is a villain to the environment and that there is only one good way for the volume of printed documents to go:- down. There is another side to the story and, while paper should be used reasonably, people have no reason to feel guilty when printing the documents they need.

 

First of all, the paper industry is one of the major contributors to forest growth. This happens through managing its own plantations or through providing a market for by-products of the wood industry. In Europe pulp and paper mills use wood coming mostly from thinnings and by-products of the saw mills, while the noble part of the tree is used for furniture or construction. They contribute to a management of the forests that is economically viable and guarantees supply for the long term, or in other words, a sustainable management. Any evidence? While paper production in Europe has multiplied by four in the last 50 years, forests have grown by 30 percent and keep growing at a rate of 2-3 percent per year.

 

This is critically important as forests play a big role in combating the effect of climate change. Growing forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into carbohydrates by means of the process known as photosynthesis. The world’s forests therefore have the unique ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to store it – both in the growing forest and in the timber and paper products that come from the forest. The more the forest grows and the more we use products from the forest, the better it is for the climate.

 

Secondly, paper production processes have become dramatically more energy efficient over recent years. Today European mills are on average 53 percent energy self sufficient, meaning that more than half of the energy consumed on site comes from biomass or by-products of the pulp making process. As an example, our Saillat mill in France is 85 percent energy self-sufficient which translates into a CO2 emissions of 112 kg/ton of paper, among the lowest in the world.

 

Thirdly, paper manufacturers are endeavouring to be more transparent and complete in their environmental communication. More and more implement a process of life-cycle assessment of their products, evaluating the entire value chain end to end, identifying the best opportunities to reduce environmental footprint and providing a common platform for discussions with customers and other stakeholders. This includes reducing existing carbon emissions, improving energy generation and ensuring that all of the wood fibres come from trees that were responsibly harvested.

 

Our mill in Saillat is in the process of finalising its carbon footprint calculation using the ADEME (Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l’Energie) methodology. The calculation will take into account the on-site emissions for manufacturing pulp and paper, the purchased electricity, the purchased fuel, such as fuel used by trucks between paper mill and finishing plant, the manufacturing and transport of raw materials (chemicals and packaging), the wood harvesting and transport to the mill, the mill installations (paper machine and buildings), the waste and effluents, the transportation of mill employees and the transportation of finished goods from mill to customers. This is the prolongation of our long-term environmental commitment.

 

The wood and paper industry is probably the only large-scale industrial system which is genuinely capable of satisfying future requirements with respect to sustainable development. When operated responsibly as is the case in Europe, it uses a renewable raw material, ecologically adapted forest management techniques and constantly improving processes, making it a virtuous player in the carbon cycle. It is up to each of us to use this great product just as responsibly.