Fifty years ago, 20 million Americans took to the country’s parks and streets to celebrate the planet. It was the first-ever Earth Day, and that surge of environmentalism led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. What some who celebrated that first Earth Day 50 years ago didn’t know—and what many who care for the planet today don’t always understand—is that while the paper industry’s commitment to the planet might begin with the forests, it doesn’t end there.
The number of trees on American soil has grown by 20% since 1970, and the industry’s replanting efforts are a part of an overall approach to forest management. But looking beyond the trees reveals an unseen devotion to the earth, in the form of renewable energy, cleaner air and reduced water consumption.
Part of the industry’s success in renewable energy comes from its primary material. On average, about two-thirds of the energy used by leading mills comes from renewable biomass energy—that is, energy from plant matter, the very trees they harvest. The insistence on using every part of the tree is part of why the industry uses more renewable energy than any other industrial sector. Nearly a quarter of leading mills even generate so much energy that they sell it back to the grid.
“There’s a fundamental difference in wood-based materials as an energy source versus fossil fuels,” says Brian Kozlowski, senior manager of sustainability performance optimization at a paper and packaging manufacturer in Wisconsin. “We’re constantly fighting that fight.” Fossil fuels put new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but wood stores carbon indefinitely, even as a finished product.
In fact, the industry is responsible for less than 1% of all carbon emissions in the United States. (Compare that with transportation, which produces 28%.) As for the industry’s genesis—sustainably managed forests—they’re actively improving air quality. Since 1990, managed forests have absorbed more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they produce. In total, the leading mills have reduced their greenhouse gas emission by nearly 20% from 2005, surpassing the goal set by the American Forest & Paper Association.
Another goal for the AF&PA: reducing water needs. Industry leaders are more than halfway to their self-determined goal of reducing water use by 12% from the 2005 baseline. “We use a lot of water, but we consume little,” Kozlowski says. The difference between the two is that water use is inevitable in any industrial process, but consumption measures water that is not returned to the environment. Industry innovations allow water to be reused at least 10 times before it’s released—and 88% of the water the industry uses is released back to the earth.
Water, air, energy, trees: All come together to make the paper industry a part of the circular economy. Trees may be the genesis of this system, as well as its most visible facet. But just as trees invisibly support the plant life around them, they support the air we all breathe, the water we all drink—and the 950,000 people employed by the forest products industry, who tend and treat the forests with care.
Learn more about Forestry, as well as the added benefits and solutions from our other industry associations on our Association Partners page.View Association Partners