The Truth Behind Paper and Deforestation: Dispelling Misconceptions and Emphasizing Sustainability
By Kathi Rowzie, President of Two Sides North America
It is often proclaimed by environmental groups that “billions of trees are cut down each year to make paper products,” and that this leads to an accelerated pace of deforestation. These groups propose eliminating the use of wood fiber in paper production by 50% before 2030, replacing it with recycled content or alternative fibers. However, as President John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things,” and the reality is that sustainably produced North American paper products are not contributors to deforestation, despite what these groups claim.
Deforestation, as defined by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other reputable environmental organizations, refers to the permanent conversion of forestland to non-forest uses. The most recent Global Forest Resources Assessment by the UN FAO reveals a substantial decrease in the rate of net forest loss between 1990 and 2020, attributed to reduced deforestation in some countries and an increase in forest area through afforestation and natural expansion. Surprisingly, the regions with the highest wood consumption, like the United States and Canada, experience the least amount of deforestation.
While deforestation remains an issue, particularly in developing nations due to forest conversion for agricultural purposes, North America has witnessed an increase in forestland. This growth is a result of sustainable forestry practices advocated by the paper and forest products industry. The US Forest Service (USFS) reports that the annual increase in U.S. tree volume is approximately twice the amount that is harvested. Additionally, Canada mandates reforestation for every hectare of commercially harvested public land, ensuring the stability of forested areas (Natural Resources Canada, NRCan).
Promoting paper recycling is a commendable environmental objective, with 68% of paper and paper-based packaging being recycled in the U.S., and an impressive 91% recovery rate for corrugated cardboard. Nonetheless, paper can only be recycled five to seven times before the wood fibers weaken, making reliance solely on recycled content impractical. Without fresh wood fiber, the supply of recycled fiber would quickly deplete, halting paper production.
While utilizing non-wood fibers can be an environmentally viable option, it is essential to acknowledge the complexities of papermaking and the diverse factors influencing the selection of fiber sources. In North America, the demand for responsibly sourced paper products serves as an economic incentive for sustainable forest management, preventing land conversion for non-forest purposes. However, in regions like China and India, where wood resources are scarce, non-wood fibers, including purpose-grown fibers and agricultural residues, have proven effective in papermaking. Ultimately, the choice of fiber sources should be determined by both environmental considerations and economic feasibility.