Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What's In Your Paper's Carbon Footprint?

by Jim Ford of Climate for Ideas for the Paper Planet

If you hear it from some paper producers, not much really. The facts, though, tell a different story. The impact of paper on the climate is large and the total life cycle of paper means that paper is one of the most greenhouse gas intensive products we use on a daily basis. The EPN's new report, Carbon Neutral Paper: Fact or Fiction, helps to lay out the facts.

First, every paper production process and life cycle uses fossil fuels. Transport of materials, purchased energy from the grid, oil, coal and gas used at the mill to make energy are key examples. These emissions are essentially irreversible even over the longest term. The use of chemicals and fossil fuels to make paper, which are large, also have indirect emissions associated with them.

Second, making virgin paper uses large amounts of biomass, as we have discussed in this blog and the new report by EPN makes very clear. The very large majority of this biomass ends up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Trees may grow again, but this depletion of the biomass in forests is in the short and medium terms also irreversible. Each time we cut down trees and burn them or allow them to decay we have to start the carbon sequestration process all over again, usually at rates of sequestration lower than what we had when the trees were in healthy forests. Thus, we are at a constant deficit relative to the other option: leaving the forests intact to continue to grow and sequester carbon. There are also impacts in the forest, in soils and forest debris that emit carbon when they are logged. No tree planting program reverses that impact.

Third, much of the paper we use ends up in landfills where the carbon in the paper is converted to methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Until we recycle all of our paper, or capture the methane released from landfills to use as an energy source, this remains a large source of climate-chaning greenhouse gases.

The answer that we propose is simple: seek Low Carbon papers. We need to understand our emissions, where they are in the process, what the relative emissions are and seek to reduce them. Some answers are simple: use recycled paper and use less paper. Some answers will require more time and dedication, like working with paper suppliers to ensure that forest management is the least impactful it can be where virgin wood is needed; improve the recycling system to divert as much paper back into a useful life and away from landfills; or reduce emissions from existing mills.

Editors Note: This is the fifth installment in an 8 week "What's In Your Paper?" series on the Paper Planet focusing on specific sectors of the paper industry or paper from specific Endangered Forest regions. Subscribe or check back each Wednesday for a new posting in this series.


marc said...

Canvas is a web site that businesses can use to replace paper forms and surveys with smart phone applications. We charge $.50 for each electronic form you fill out on your smart phone. Our web site tracks your usage, and we are building a "paper meter" chart that shows how much money the business has saved by not using paper. One of the factors in the savings equation is the carbon footprint of the paper not used.

How many tons of carbon are emitted from production and disposal of a 8 1/2" piece of office paper? 3 part carbon copy invoice?



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Alan said...

Right on ... we need to reduce the use of paper.

We are initiating globally our paperless homework project where we hope millions of students around the world will go paperless.

We provide the tools and necessary intuitive ans sustainable ways to get students participate easily unlike recycling where a lot of efforts are needed.

Just tell the schools about it and adopt paperless homework and we see our efforts for Mother Earth more fruitful than years of green messages.

Action not talk only is what we believe.

You can view our site at

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Anonymous said...

I always hear that going paperless is the way to be. However, i recently talked to a carbon specialist that got me thinking.

If we go paperless and everyone switches to using electronic devices for all their work. Would it cause more harm to the enviornment to make all these ipads and laptops than making paper? Also, the build up of electronic wastes is growing quickly and the effort to deal with this waste is hugh. On the other hand, recycled paper seems to be relatively easy and environmental friendly.

He also said that A printed book can be shared with anyone without causing additional carbon emission. An additional ipad will need to be turned on if the person wants to read the article again or when one more person wants to read the same article. Where would the electricity needed to power all these devices come from? It would come from burning fossil fuel, more carbon emission.

Lastly, it seems that many trees were planted specifically for paper making, just like corn is planted for eating. I also heard that the majority of the wood is used for other things like furniture and building (since a good solid piece of wood can be sold at a premium price), only the unwanted wood chips are used for paper making. If that is the case, then we should be using any wooden tables, chairs or doors. Then living in a "woodless home" or having a "woodless office" be more helpful to the environment?

That is what got me thinking. Is going paperless really the true way to help the planet, or it is just how we were taught and how the "paperless" idea was packaged and presented to us...

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