About thirty years ago I found myself in the thick of reporting and writing on the environmental troubles of the pulp and paper industry. They were many and real. A big bombshell was the infamous "D-word." The industry was poisoning the earth, air and water by spewing cancer-causing dioxins everywhere! Adroit chemical management took care of this--although not without considerable expense to the industry.
Then the industry was turning streams and rivers to the color of black coffee with its nasty old effluent! Then the industry was cutting down all the trees! Next, we were running out of places to put the trash because paper was filling the landfills! High-quality chemistry and truth-telling shot down--however ineffectively in the public mind--each of these environmental nightmares. Having beaten back all the hyper-imaginative fears about the eminent destruction of the global environment at the hands of the pulp and paper industry, its leaders finally found a subject on which industry and public could be united: recycling. Both sides, producers and consumers, seized on the subject with teeth and talons.
At least in North America and most of Europe, the upper limits of progress in paper recycling have been reached or soon will be. And so the environmental cause celébre has morphed again. It has become sustainability.
Paper producers the world over are climbing onto this bandwagon. They are committing their mills and companies to such lofty aims as elimination (or near-elimination) of fossil fuels and moving toward biofuel targets, aiming for forest certification for the trees their own companies grow and insisting on it for the fiber they purchase. They have found or are finding uses for every scrap of actual or potential resources in their wood yards. And, of course, they are planting millions more trees than they cut annually.
Now the torch is moving on into the hands of the companies who buy what the pulp and paper mills produce. What--if anything--is their responsibility for the gazillions of tons of paper and board they are releasing into and onto the world? The problem is especially acute for companies that not only buy and use paper and board, but then pass these amalgams of fiber on to their own customers. Two notable examples that come to mind are Amazon and McDonald's.
In separate analyses, Estelle Favors and Amal Dorai both conclude that Amazon--not the only, but certainly the world's largest package shipper moves about 3,300,000 packages per day--an almost mind-boggling number. (Many small items travel in padded envelopes rather than rigid containers.) The journey of every one of these containers stops completely with their addressees. So, what happens to them then? Some will be recycled by environmentally conscious individuals and companies, but probably most will be landfilled.
McDonald's is only one of many but probably the largest dispenser of fast food. The company's "golden arches" signs proclaim that billions and billions of the company's mainstay food and drink products have been--and are being--sold. That equates, of course to billions and billions of sandwich wrappers, paper cups and paper bags passing over McDonald's customer service counters and through its drive-in windows. What is next for all this fibrous food packaging? Probably what is next is the nearest trash receptacle.
Or will some new kind of "next" emerge from the environmental swivet that shipping and food packaging are creating? We can't and won't try to predict what it might be, but it is a problem in search of a solution. And the world has a way of finding solutions to such problems. Stay tuned.
Chuck Swann is Senior Editor of Paperitalo Publications.