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A sustainable trail

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This article appeared in the November 2020 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainable materials management as a “systemic approach to using and reusing materials more productively over their entire life cycle.” In the United States, paper manufacturers are meeting global expectations for sustainability and environmental responsibility by efficiently managing their materials at every stage of production.

Many materials are being reused and repurposed during the paper making process, and in doing so waste is being prevented from going to landfills. It’s also important to understand that at the forestry level, the industry is making decisions with the climate in mind.

Impacts from renewable fuel

Climate change is having an impact on businesses in every industry, and pulp and paper manufacturers are no exception. And the realities of a warming planet have been top of mind through the second half of 2020, with wildfires raging in the western United States – the conditions that lead to these types of fires have been amplified by drought conditions that are a result of climate change.

This should lead us all to question what we – individuals and businesses alike – can do differently.

Many manufacturers are contributors to global warming due to the amount of energy they consume and emissions they produce on a daily basis.

Though the pulp and paper industry is one of the largest energy intensive sectors, according to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions data from the EPA, the industry is one of the lowest direct contributors of emissions. This is because many pulp and paper mills use renewable fuel resources rather than fossil fuels, and their renewable fuel portfolio includes waste recovered from operations such as wood debarking and chipping as well as wood byproducts from the pulping process.

This is one aspect of sustainable materials management in paper manufacturing. The renewable approach to meet energy needs allows the sector to reduce its intake of raw materials and fuel sources. This process has proved to be highly effective.

Sustainably managed forests

Another key component of the pulp and paper industry’s sustainability efforts can be seen in the realm of forest management.

Many people are under the misconception that because pulp and paper mills use trees to create their products, they must have a negative impact on the climate. The logic goes like this: If trees sequester and store carbon, it does not make sense to cut them down for manufacturing feedstock.

It’s true paper manufacturers rely on having access to forests to source wood for making pulp. But the industry knows that to continue to be able to use wood fiber as a source in the years to come, forests must remain healthy. This devotion to sustainably managed forests also ensures woodlands are able to continue to play their critical carbon sequestering role.

On top of that, there are other aspects of forest management specifically designed to reduce wildfire risk, such as clearing paths, selectively removing trees from danger areas, and even setting controlled fires to reduce forest density and clear out dry, flammable vegetation caused by drought.

That’s why new approaches to sustainably managing forests, in light of climate change, are being developed and assessed. For example, managing threats such as pest infestation and improving biodiversity will help to ensure forests remain healthy, allowing other businesses and the surrounding communities to flourish and prosper, in addition to mitigating climate change.

There are so many new opportunities on the horizon for the use of wood fibers (for instance, replacing plastics that a growing number of groups, government and individuals see as a pollution problem). Taking advantage of the opportunities can only happen if forests are healthy.

Recycled content and waste minimization

Many manufacturers and consumers are coming to embrace a “circular economy” business model, the goal being to move away from the concept that everything is made to be discarded. Rather than creating something that will inevitably wind up in a landfill that could also create methane gas – another harmful greenhouse gas that has an even higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide – manufacturers should create things that can be reused many times, as in the case of wood fiber.

According to the latest numbers from the EPA, paper and paperboard products such as cardboard packaging, writing paper and newsprint have some of the highest recycling percentages among materials in the municipal waste stream. The federal data indicates 65.9% of the paper and paperboard generated in the municipal stream in 2017 was recycled. In that same period, only 8.4% of plastic in the stream was recycled.

Further, wood fiber from a tree can be reused between four and seven times before losing its properties. This means that when and where practical, manufacturers can incorporate recycled fiber content when producing a variety of paper products.

Recovered fiber, as defined by the EPA Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines, includes both post-consumer fibers (paper, paperboard and fibrous products that have been used by consumers and recycled) and post-industrial fibers (scrap materials leftover and reclaimed from industrial uses that have never reached consumers).

The level of reprocessing needed for post-consumer and post-industrial fiber varies depending on the intended next use. Not all paper and paper products are made of 100% recycled material and, in fact, sometimes making that grade of paper expends more fossil energy, which can negate the positive impact. Businesses should always consider all aspects and potential consequences in their use of recycled materials.

When mills strive to apply sustainable materials management practices at every stage of production, they are optimizing their product, creating value for the customer, the environment, the business and the community.

Continuous focus on sustainability

So many raw materials have more possible uses than people assume, and they present incredible opportunities for manufacturers, particularly in the pulp and paper industry.

The pulp and paper sector is experienced with the management of their key raw material – trees – as well as the best use and reuse of the wood fiber that is obtained from them. Being cognizant of the impact that manufacturing operations can have on the environment, paper manufacturers continually focus on operating as sustainably as they can at every stage of production.

Now, with the threat of climate change becoming ever more apparent, many businesses, across sectors, are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint without adversely impacting their bottom line or their local economies. The pulp and paper sector’s embrace of sustainable materials management as a part of a broader circular economy strategy ensures that the sector will remain strong and sustainable while addressing the climate threat.

Manufacturers have a responsibility to their surrounding communities to make sure they are using resources wisely. And they have a responsibility to the global community to make sure they are contributing to climate solutions. By employing sustainable materials management practices, manufacturers ensure the long-term viability of their companies and the long-term health of our planet.

Sandy Taft is Sappi North America’s director of sustainability. He helps to guide Sappi’s continued commitment to productively engage in the circular economy through material waste reduction, product design for end of life and carbon mitigation strategies. Taft can be contacted at [email protected]

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