The idea of using alternative fibers to make paper isn’t new, but it has regained media attention of late with actor Woody Harrelson promoting Prairie Pulp and Paper, a Canadian venture he co-founded to make paper using wheat straw (the waste from wheat harvests that typically is burned) instead of wood. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2012/10/25/woody-harrelson-paper-plan.html).
Finding an innovative, economical way to convert waste to new, usable products is terrific, and Mr. Harrelson and his partners are to be commended for their Step Forward Paper™. But please Woody, save the marketing hyperbole for Hollywood. Calling logging “barbaric” and wishing we would “get to the point where we never use trees to make paper” is a naïve view of papermaking that ignores the science of sustainable forest management and the economic drivers that make paper made from trees one of the most sustainable products on earth.
Mr. Harrelson is quoted as saying that “much of the paper used” is from “threatened and endangered forests.” That’s simply not true. Sure, there are a few bad actors in less developed parts of the world, but U.S. paper companies require their wood suppliers – including millions of small, family owned tree farms – to manage their land responsibly. And the demand for sustainably sourced paper provides an important financial incentive for tree farmers to manage their forestland responsibly rather than selling it off for development – the number one cause of forest loss in the United States according to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).
The U.S. paper industry plays a key role, not only in helping landowners learn and implement sustainable harvesting and best management practices, but also in encouraging certification to credible sustainable forest management standards. In its 2010 Report on Sustainable Forests, the USFS says it’s the “loss of an active forest management focus and the revenue streams that accompany it” – not the paper industry’s sustainable forest management – that “threatens the survival of U.S. forests and their associated ecosystem services.”
Given that more U.S. trees are regenerated than harvested each year, the whole “tree-free paper protects forests” argument just doesn’t hold water. Besides being made with a renewable resource, wood-based paper is the most recycled commodity in the country – more than plastics, metals and glass – according to the U.S. EPA. In 2011, some 66.8% of U.S. paper produced was recovered for recycling. And U.S. paper mills generate about 65% of the energy they use from renewable, carbon-neutral biomass.
To substantiate its claim that “Step Forward™ paper is significantly more sustainable, from an environmental perspective, than the typical North American virgin tree fiber paper types,” Prairie P&P released the results of a life cycle assessment (LCA) conducted by Canadian carbon management firm Offsetters. The wheat-based paper was reported to consume half the energy of North American 100% virgin wood copy papers and released 40% less greenhouse gas emissions. This is because wheat straw, like most alternative fibers, contains less lignin, the natural glue-like substance that holds the fiber together. Less lignin, less energy needed to break it down.
There are many issues of concern related to the use of agricultural crop alternatives to wood fiber (the fact that they are monocultures, deplete soil quality, and require intensive management to eliminate competing plants and pests, for example) and about this study in particular. Instead of using current data on specific paper products, the Offsetters LCA includes secondary data on “typical North American virgin tree fiber paper” from a well-known tool called the Paper Calculator. This data uses paper industry averages to make generalizations about environmental performance.
In a January 2012 white paper, Effect of Methodology on the Life Cycle Analysis of Paper Products, Professor Richard Venditti of North Carolina State University reviewed several paper LCAs including the conclusions of the Paper Calculator (The Paper Task Force Study) used by Prairie P&P. He correctly concluded that, “Industry average data are useful for an industry to benchmark its overall performance, but the use of industrial averages of environmental impacts to promote a specific paper product relative to other similar paper products is not reasonable.” His conclusion is based on the fact that there are very large ranges of environmental performance for one type of paper product from manufacturing site to site. Due to this large range, “It’s imperative to base environmental claims on site- and product-specific LCAs using established protocols like ISO 14040:2006,” Venditti says.
Furthermore, globally accepted life cycle accounting standards, including the World Resources Institute Greenhouse Gas Protocol Product Life Cycle Accounting and Reporting Standard cited in the Step Forward™ study, admonish those who conduct even the strictest of life cycle assessments not to use results to make generalizations across broad product categories.
My intent here is not to offer a point-counterpoint review of the Step Forward™ study or to in any way suggest that Step Forward™ paper is not a welcome addition in a world that must pursue sustainable, economically viable solutions to meet the needs of a growing population. If companies like Prairie Pulp and Paper, and more recently Eco-Paper, want to give consumers a wider choice of sustainably produced paper products, that’s great. But don’t portray the U.S. wood-based paper industry as the great destroyer of the world’s forests in the process. The facts just don’t support it.
For a good, concise overview of how sustainable forest-based products like paper are encouraging global economic, environmental and social sustainability, take a look at this short video from last year’s Rio+20 conference. It describes how the sustainable production and consumption of forest-based bio-products “will be a game changer in moving us toward a greener economy.”
Kathi Rowzie is a Two Sides guest blogger and a sustainability communications consultant with The Gagliardi Group in Memphis, Tennessee.