The paper packaging industry is coming under increasing scrutiny as paper alternatives begin to replace many plastic formats. Are paper products a better alternative?
That usually depends on what you mean by “better.” Because there are literally hundreds of ways of defining that word. There are so many different variables involved, and not just environmental but also social and economic ones. And in a competitive environment both plastic and paper lobbyists play for advantage, and some environmental groups, well, exaggerate things to get attention and/or funding.
Much of what is written and said about paper and plastic packaging, and packaging in general, is not very nice. In fact, a great deal of it is patently false and misleading. Here are two common examples of paper smears in action.
Smear # 1: “Every year, three billion trees are cut down globally for paper-based packaging.”
This claim has been widely disseminated and is continuously repeated, especially on social media and by various environmental groups. Together with an image of an ugly clear-cut, it serves as a dramatic symbol linking paper packaging to the “destruction” of trees. Three billion sounds huge. And it plays into the common perception of trees being hacked down just for packaging. Packaging itself, of course, is not exactly everyone’s flavour of the month.
But is the claim accurate? How does one measure how many trees are cut down for packaging? Was it cut down just for packaging or primarily for the lumber to build houses and hospitals (with the leftover wood shavings and sawdust being used for packaging)? Does one large tree equal 20 spindly ones? Does it include trees that have been grown by the forest industry or just primary (never logged) trees? What’s the basis and the context for the three-billion claim?
Because according to the US Forest Service, there are some 365 billion trees in American forests alone.[i] That’s a lot more than three billion. The North American Boreal Zone by itself is said to hold some 500 billion individual trees, according to a scientific article in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change that uses an average tree-density methodology.[ii] And the International Boreal Conservation Campaign recently released a video claiming that there are 600 billion trees in the Canadian Boreal. The Canadian Boreal represents just 7% of the world’s forests. There are a lot of trees out there! The “three billion” claim suddenly seems miniscule in comparison.
And what the “three billion” claimants conveniently fail to mention, of course, is that many countries, including Canada, have laws that any logged forest must be regenerated as forest (naturally or through tree planting) after the harvest. So those so-called “three billion” trees don’t just “disappear into packaging” with nothing else happening afterwards. They are continuously replaced by new trees.
Smear # 2: “(Paper packaging) is the major driver of deforestation in Europe and across the globe.” (Plastic Rethink press release, 12 September, 2023).
This smear (and others like it) is both ignorant and false. First, there is the false belief that cutting down trees by itself amounts to deforestation: a notion that is frequently repeated by plastic lobbyists, some environmental groups, and by a surprising number of ignorant journalists.
In fact, the world’s forest scientists through the United Nations make a key distinction when it comes to removing trees from forest land. When trees are removed and replaced by agricultural crops, grazing land, residential subdivisions, or flooded to make hydro reservoirs, the forest is unlikely to come back to forest. That is called deforestation.
But if that forest land is regenerated as forest (either naturally or artificially through tree planting or direct seeding) then that is not considered to be deforestation. The land remains forest land where trees will be grown again. Logging by itself, then, is not deforestation. Only if the land is not returned to forest.
Some 90% of the world’s deforestation is occurring in tropical countries: in Africa, South America, and Asia.[iii] The countries of Europe have an average deforestation rate of less than 0.2% according to UN data.[iv] Canada, where I live, has one of the lowest rates in the world (0.01%).[v]
And contrary to the smear above (and others like it), paper packaging is not “the major driver.” The major cause globally is when forest land is removed for the growing of agricultural crops, for soy and palm oil, timber, pulp, or when it is cleared for cattle grazing and wood fuel.[vi]
In Canada, the major cause of deforestation (almost half of it) is the conversion of forest land to agriculture.[vii] Forestry’s specific contribution is minimal (2%), mainly through the creation of permanent forest access roads. And that 2% covers the whole of the forest and paper industries (lumber, newsprint, market pulp, printing and writing papers, sanitary and tissue products, plus packaging grades). In fact, packaging itself is not responsible for any deforestation in Canada! That’s because most of the board used to make boxes and cartons in Canada is 100% recycled content.[viii] Any forest land that is harvested for packaging grades is regenerated by law. It is not converted to non-forest uses.
Plastic lobbyists and others who like to lob the deforestation grenade at the forest and paper industries should look more closely at deforestation data. One of the leading causes (in Canada at least) is oil and gas extraction, which together with mining is currently responsible for over 30% of Canada’s deforestation. What is plastic derived from again?
John Mullinder is the author of Little Green Lies and Other BS: From “Ancient” Forests to “Zero” Waste and Deforestation in Canada and Other Fake News. www.johnmullinder.ca
[i] Sonja N. Oswalt et al., Forest Resources of the United States 2017: A Technical Document Supporting the Forest Service 2020 RPA Assessment, (Gen. Tech. Report WO-97), US Department of Agriculture Forest Service. March 2019, https://www.fs.fed.us/research/publications/gtr/gtr_wo97.pdf
[ii] Jeffrey V. Wells et al., “The State of Conservation in North America’s Boreal Forest: Issues and Opportunities,’ Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, July 30, 2020. https://doi.org/10.3389/ffgc.2020.00090 “Using Crowther et al’s (2015) boreal tree density average applied to the North American Boreal Forest biome that the biome holds as many as 500 billion individual trees.”
[iii] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020, Main Report, 2020. Table 10 Deforestation rate, by region and sub-region, for four periods spanning 1990-2020, page 19. https://www.fao.org/3/ca9825en/ca9825en.pdf
[iv] Calculation based on EU-27 countries listed in FAO, Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020: Country Reports, 2020 www.fao.org/forest-resources-assessment/fra-2020/country-reports/en
[v] Natural Resources Canada, The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report, 2022. https://www.natural-resources.canada.ca/sites/nrcan/files/forest/sof2022/SoF_Annual2022_EN_access.pdf
[vi] FAO, Global Forest Resources Assessment, Main Report, 2020 ibid.
[vii] The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report, 2022, ibid.
[viii] “Most Canadian Packaging Board Now 100% Recycled Content,” (press release), Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC), September 12, 2019. https://www.ppec-paper.com/most-canadian-packaging-board-now-100-recycled-content