In honor of Earth Day we're diving deep into the material that makes up much of the packaging we sell at Lumi — paper. Where does it come from and how has that changed over the past century?
Paper is one of the most recyclable materials on the planet. But even with 92.9% of all corrugated material in the United States being recovered for recycling, there is not enough recycled material to make every box.
After paper fibers have been recycled 5 to 7 times, the fibers are too short to be reused, so they’re discarded. That means that we need a lot of new paper to enter the stream. That new paper comes from new wood fibers (i.e. trees). In the industry, it’s called virgin fiber.
In the U.S. 53% of the paper being used to make boxes comes from virgin material. But where do these virgin fibers come from? What is the impact of virgin paper production on CO2 emissions? What is the net carbon footprint of the paper industry in America?
To answer these questions, we traced the lifecycle of paper to get a full picture of the impact that the U.S. paper industry is having on the environment. What we found out may be surprising: the paper industry has a critical role in planting and preserving forests in America and these forests have a positive impact on the near-term reduction of greenhouse gases.
Forests cover about 30% of the planet’s land area, and as much as 45% of the carbon stored on land is tied up in forests. The National Biomass and Carbon Dataset is the largest high-resolution map of forest biomass yet assembled. Map by Robert Simmon based on 2011 data from Woods Hole Research Center. Source: NASA
What are managed forests?
Close to 98% of all of virgin fiber used in U.S. paper production is sourced from certified farms and managed forests where new trees are specifically grown for these industries.
Managed forests undergo extensive certifications to ensure that growing, harvesting, and replanting is as sustainable as possible. Programs like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the American Tree Farm System, and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) have requirements like promoting biodiversity, increasing water and soil quality, reforestation, afforestation, and even a consideration of forest aesthetics.
All of these practices can be summed up by your favorite new word: silviculture. Silviculture is the practice of controlling the lifecycle of a forest by considering the needs of each tree species, relative to their exact location, and the forest’s varied uses.
In most managed forests, an important part of silviculture is the understanding that trees are essentially used as crops. The trees that are best for making paper are fast-growing species like loblolly (Pinus taeda) and slash pines (Pinus elliottii). So, your friendly, neighborhood oak tree is exempt. In the U.S. over half of the material harvested from managed forests ends up being used to make paper. By sticking to specific species and using techniques like staggered cutting at specifically calculated increments, these trees are carefully tended to through their entire lifecycle — from seed to forest.
The positive impact of managed forests
So if these trees are being grown with the intention of being cut down, is that part of deforestation? Actually, it’s afforestation, which is a good thing and a practice we’ve improved over hundreds of years in the U.S., only after realizing we messed up big time. Going through the history of forestry in the U.S. starts off bleak, but it gets better, I promise.
Loggers holding a crosscut saw next to a giant Sequoia tree. California 1917. Image: A. R. Moore
In the 19th century the US suffered a net loss of 20% of its forest coverage, accounting for two thirds of net historic forest loss, predominantly driven by agriculture and population growth. Year over year, deforestation during this period knocked out most of the country’s original forests (AKA old growth).
By the mid-20th century, the problem had become so apparent that the government stepped in to help replant forests that were cleared out. Deforestation slowed and began to be outpaced by afforestation — the restoration of long deforested lands. This mass afforestation was initially driven by the government via initiatives like the Soil Bank Program, and then increasingly by forest industries like paper. In fact, the paper industry was responsible for over half of all new trees planted in the US in the 20th century. Now, forest cover in the U.S. is at 33% of land area, with 8% of that still being that lovely, untouched, old growth. In the late 2000s, timber growth has exceeded removals by 72%.
In 1920, timber harvest rates nationally were double the rate of forest growth; but by 1952, net annual growth had exceeded annual harvest from all U.S. forests. By 1997, net annual growth was almost four times what it was in 1920. In 2007, net growth exceeded harvest by 72%. Source: The Forest History Society
Unfortunately though, deforestation hasn’t completely disappeared, and surprise, surprise, it’s driven by money. The financial allure of urban development, pastureland, and traditional cropland are the leading culprits of the 1.5 million acres of forest still lost every year in the U.S. Managed forests are key in preventing deforestation because they provide an economic counterpoint in the equation. Managed forests are just as valuable to those who ultimately only care about the bottom line.
Staving off even more deforestation is good for all of us. If even 1% of industry-owned timberland in the United States was converted to non-forest uses, the equivalent of 90 million metric tonnes of CO2 would be added to the atmosphere. That’s more than the yearly emissions of every car sold in the US over the past two years!
Loggers in rural New York, August 1907. Image: US Forest Service
Offsetting carbon emissions with sustainable forestry
Industry farmed forests are particularly good at scrubbing CO2 out of the air. Trees capture the most carbon when they are young and growing fast — it’s kind of like when they’re going through tree puberty.
The species of trees that are grown in the managed forests grow quickly, then they’re cut down and replanted in their mid-twenties. So all the trees in these managed forests are perpetually in a state of mass carbon absorption.
When we account for the entire lifecycle of a tree used for paper — from planting to harvesting, transportation, manufacturing, electricity consumption, and upstream emissions from processing aids — the paper and paperboard value chain in the U.S. sequesters (i.e. captures) more equivalent CO2 through new trees and paper than it releases in manufacturing the end products. In fact in 2010, 34.5% more CO2 was sequestered than was released according to the the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. That means that the trees being used to produce paper and lumber actually capture more carbon than what’s being emitted to process them, which is great news.
What happens to that carbon after a tree is turned into a box which is turned into paper? Nothing. It stays with the tree through its entire lifecycle, in each new form. So, is there CO2 in your box? Kind of. Trees take carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into carbon to grow, and that’s what your box is made of. So an 11 x 9 x 4 box weighing .7lbs is holding about .35lbs of carbon, which is the equivalent of 1.28lbs of CO2.
The end of that tree’s lifecycle comes when it enters a landfill. After your box has been recycled up seven times and the fibers are too short to be recycled, they are usually burned or end up in a landfill where much of their carbon is slowly released back into the atmosphere as greenhouse gasses. When you factor in the equivalent CO2 released every year from those end-of-life cycles, that extra 34.5% of carbon captured by these trees gets released back into the atmosphere.
But the end-of-lifecycle emissions don’t totally overshadow the initial positive footprint of the paper industry. That’s because the quick capture of carbon in these young trees delays the release of CO2 and helps to slow the compounding nature of climate change, allowing more time to improve the end-of-life emissions cycle for paper products. One such strategy currently underway in California involves capturing the methane (the main greenhouse gas released during anaerobic decomposition) produced and released in landfills to burn as fuel, reducing the use of higher CO2 emission fuels like coal or oil.
Sequestering carbon in the near term and preserving forests in the long term isn’t a bad plan for now. In the hundreds of years that we’ve grown and processed trees from managed forests in the U.S., we’ve only gotten better at it, and there’s still room to grow.
Implications for packaging
Recycling boxes makes a big difference in helping the paper lifecycle stay as green as possible. The longer a box stays in the cycle, the longer it’s keeping that CO2 out of the air, and ultimately helping the environmental footprint of the industry.
But it’s not all about boxes. “Sustainability” is a word that gets used a lot, but when it comes to packaging, you have to consider it in all phases: the materials to make it, the impact of manufacturing, the size and weight used in transit to you, the space and weight used in transit to your customer, and finally the recyclability of it re-entering the cycle.
Whatever packaging you choose to pack and ship your product, make sure that your customer knows how to recycle it and the impact of doing so. One box in the blue bin may feel like a drop in the ocean, but with e-commerce on the rise and more recycling in the hands of consumers, every box really does matter.
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