I recently took issue with Vancouver-based conservation group Canopy when it made some major boo-boos about paper-based packaging in Canada. It does not seem to be listening.
In an article published in the Toronto Star last week, Canopy was again extolling the virtues of wheat straw and how the use of it would establish a whole new green paper sector without trees. Sounds interesting until you look at the facts.
First a bit of background.Paper was made from non-wood materials such as papyrus, parchment, hemp, rattan, mulberry, bamboo, rice straw and even seaweed long before it was made from wood so it would be hypocritical of the paper industry to criticize the investigation and use of what are generally marketed today as ‘tree-free’ alternatives.
In the 1940s, 25 mills in the US Midwest produced corrugated boxes from straw, but all had disappeared by 1960 because they were uneconomic. Promoters such as Canopy have persisted, however, variously favouring alternatives such as bamboo, kenaf, hemp and straw.
In promoting these alternatives, Canopy and others have unfortunately tended to ignore, disparage, and/or badmouth the existing paper industry infrastructure. It sounds impressive to claim to Canadian readers that “three billion trees per year currently go into paper packaging.”
What Canopy doesn’t mention, however, is that those ‘three billion trees’ is someone’s estimate of the global harvest of trees for packaging, and that this has little to do with the Canadian packaging industry. In fact, hardly any trees are directly harvested to make paper boxes or cartons in Canada. Most of the packaging mills in Canada make board from 100% recycled material, not from freshly-cut trees. Those shipping containers and pizza boxes and cereal cartons that you use are generally made from old boxes and paper collected from the back of Canadian factories and supermarkets, from office buildings, and from residential Blue Box programs. Canopy has been told this before.
Any virgin material that is used to make packaging here (normally wood chips, sawdust and shavings left over from lumber operations to build homes, hospitals and schools) must by provincial law be successfully regenerated. To help achieve this, over one thousand new seedlings are planted somewhere in Canada every minute. In other words, the paper packaging industry in Canada is already a ‘green’ paper sector, forming a continuous recycling loop or circular economy.
Canopy does acknowledge one of the problems with alternative fibres. Mills using agricultural residues need to be located “near where farmers end up with lots of wheat straw.” Considering that most existing and new packaging mills or machines in Canada use recycled content (not virgin fibres), and that they are deliberately built next to the source of those fibres (that is, towns and cities), why on earth would they relocate to a predominantly rural area to use wheat straw? It does not make sense. And where’s the proof that wheat straw performs to market specifications? If you can’t sell the end-product, it’s game over.