Recent announcements by several Canadian newspapers, and the major U.S. newspaper in New Orleans, that they are cutting back on printed editions, as well as the visibly thinner newspapers on the newsstand emphasize that the demand for communications papers continues to decline. Industry statistics, of course, show this trend in cold, hard figures.
Like any consumer product, the extent of paper use depends on a mix of rational need and personal preference, which is in turn driven by advertising, the popular media, and casual chats between individuals.
This casual communication has become substantially more powerful with the rapid growth of social media, email and Web sites. Unfortunately, much more of the social chat on the Internet is directed against the industry and the use of paper than in favor of it. Many of our readers have extensive knowledge of the facts underlying the issues and could join the debate. Later in this article, you will find some sources of information, but do not be shy about working out you own numbers, based on your first-hand knowledge and that of you colleagues.
As carbon footprints came to the fore as an environmental issue, many of the environmentalists jumped on the paper industry, encouraging people to avoid use of paper for environmental reasons. Much of this was ill-informed; paper production is a low-carbon affair compared with most industry and human activity.
Depending on the grade, the extent of recycled fiber use, etc., paper use gives rise to about a kilogram of carbon equivalent emissions per kilogram of paper used, whereas eating meat causes emissions of about 20 kg carbon/kg meat. North Americans consume about 100 kg of meat per year, and 200 kg of paper per year, so it is clear that there is a LOT more scope for people to modify their behavior to reduce carbon emissions by eating less meat that by cutting paper consumption. Also, notice that most dietary experts recommend a reduction in current meat consumption for health reasons. Why then do the environmentalists work harder at persuading people to conserve paper than to eat less meat?
The paper industry contributed hugely to the development of adverse environmental organizations for much of the last century. Until the 1980s, air and water pollution by most mills was disgusting and highly visible, while many companies fought tooth and nail by all legal means against any significant improvement. Dramatic improvements followed environmental protection regulation and a change of attitude in management, so that by about 2000, only relatively few paper mills had any more serious impact on their local environment than other human activities, and much less than some industries and activities. Technical evolution and the closure of a number of obsolete mills have improved the picture even further, so that today we have only a few bad actors in the paper industry in the developed world.
However, today’s paper industry still lives under the shadow of the last few generations of managers.
The initial opposition to paper recycling by industry did not help the situation. Today’s efficient and widespread recycling of paper is a major success story that has not been fully recognized by the public.
A bit belatedly, a number of paper companies and industry organizations have embarked on programs to defend and promote the use of paper. So far, the best written material I have seen is from Europe, so there are opportunities for the rest of us to learn. If you want ideas and facts to use in your own communications, have a look at the following sites.
The Speciality Paper Manufacturer's Association site at http://www.paperimpact.org has a lot of useful information.
For packaging papers, refer to http://www.fefco.org for extensive information on the advantages of paper for packaging, and description of a standardized European paper packaging for fruit and vegetables (“common footprint”) that competes with plastic. From what we see in European stores, the program is successful.
Domtar’s http://www.paperbecause.com site presents some facts and several amusing videos on the benefits of using paper for communications.
IP’s European division has been active in this field at http://www.internationalpaper.com/emea/en/company/sustainability/littlegreenbook.html and http://www.internationalpaper.com/Apps/GreenBook/EN/index.html will lead you to the IP Little Green Book, and also their Little Book of Commonsense.
Unfortunately, the on-line versions are very hard to read. You can order paper versions from David.firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Green Book has a glaring error that distracts from its credibility. It says that a computer uses 100 kWh/month. I have measured my high power laptop as consuming about 16 kWh/month, when used actively for 60 hours/week. It is hard for me to imagine that the average computer uses much more. Of course, there are servers and communications networks involved too, but their power consumption is not too significant at about 20 kWh per capita per month (based on Jonathan Koomey. 2011. Growth in Data center electricity use 2005 to 2010. Oakland, CA: Analytics Press, accessed at http://www.analyticspress.com/datacenters.html)
Thus, while we wish to encourage people to prefer reading on paper over a computer screen, we should be cautious about the frequent assertions that electronic reading is an energy hog.
Technologically competent companies should avoid such errors because they provide great fuel to those who will ascribe the (probably innocent) erroneous information to deliberate attempts to mislead.