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Environmental Improvements in the North American Pulp and Paper Industry


July, 2017


G. Wilkins

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Paper for recycling

Paper waiting to be recycled

The North American pulp and paper industry has seen significant decreases in its environmental footprint since 2001 due to incredible strides in energy use and greenhouse gas reduction, along with forest maintenance and harvesting practices.

Paper products are ubiquitous in North America and have historically been the subject of environmental concerns in aspects of production, use, disposal, and recovery. The most public-facing of these has been recovery, and for years various campaigns have encouraged North Americans to recycle in an effort to reduce the amount of production required and lessen the effects of use and disposal.

The pulp and paper industry has been taking note, including the American Forest and Paper Association. In the U.S., members of the AF&PA represent the manufacturing of various wood and paper products. In partnership with government agencies and communities alike, it employs advanced practices to ensure that forests used for manufacturing are maintained and harvested responsibly.

Since 2001, voluntary recycling efforts by the industry and U.S. companies and individuals alike have increased by 20%.. In 2016 the recovery rate for paper in the U.S. reached a record 67.2%, double what it was in 1990 and barely 3% shy of the AF&PA’s 70% goal. Simultaneously, Canada’s waste paper recovery has improved, increasing 4% between 2010 and 2012. Canada’s 73% waste paper recovery rate is now one of the highest on the planet.

Further results are emerging from within the paper industry itself. Alongside recovery concerns, linger worries about the effects of production of things such as paper which require deforestation, emission of greenhouse gases, and heavy use of energy and water. The AF&PA and its Canadian counterpart, the Forest Products Association of Canada, have been proactive in leading the industry toward better manufacturing practices.

Certified forests have been a major focus of both organizations. A forest can be certified if it is maintained in a way that meets certain standards. These standards promote the health of each forest and the people and wildlife within it, and also the responsible harvesting and manufacturing that AF&PA and FPAC strive for.

In 2014, member groups of the AF&PA increased the procurement of fiber from certified forests to 29% from 23% in 2005. In addition, they increased the amount of certified fiber they got from certified fiber sourcing programs by 98%. All of this comes together not only to improve AF&PA members’ own practices, but to discourage illegal and harmful ones, which is important because 90% of the world’s forests are still un-certified.

Energy use has also decreased dramatically among AF&PA members. Their paper mills generate carbon-neutral biomass energy that accounts for two-thirds of the energy they need. Because of this, the energy needed to manufacture a ton of paper in 2014 was 8.1% lower than in 2005. Even water usage has dropped by 6.5% thanks to technology that allows mills to reuse their water an average of ten times throughout the manufacturing process.

Climate change is a growing global issue, and its effects are imminent in Canadian forests, where appropriate ranges for some tree species are expected to shift toward the north over a 50 year time span. Trees don’t move or spread very quickly, so this means that already established trees may soon stand in climates that are not suitable for them. This could seriously affect the biodiversity and health of some Canadian forests.

Fortunately, organizations like AF&PA and FPAC are already thinking about this. Existing practices that regenerate forests after deforestation, and possibly the human-assisted relocation of affected trees, could help these forests survive. The North American pulp and paper industry’s ever-increasing focus on sustaining the forests it thrives upon has so far provided encouraging results, and as it continues to reach or surpass these goals its positive effect on manufacturing practices suggest even better results in the future.

Trees harvested for paper

Forests harvested for paper production.

paper plant operations

Paper pressing machines.

  1. Header photo: Rumford Paper Mill by AlexisHoratius via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rumford_Paper_Mill_2.JPG
  2. http://www.piworld.com/post/environmental-improvements-in-the-north-american-pulp-and-paper-industry
  3. http://www.afandpa.org/docs/default-source/sust-toolkit/af-amp-pa-2017-sustainability-highlights-pages.pdf?sfvrsn=2
  4. http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/forests/report/16496http://www.fpac.ca/images/uploads/Vision2020_ReportCard_2014.pdf
  5. http://www.fpac.ca/wp-content/uploads/FPAC_Environmental_Brochure.pdf


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