The Paper Industry’s Sustainability Story Begins with the Forest


Step into a forest, and you’ll witness a dynamic interplay of growth and survival driven by the life cycle of its trees. Rapidly growing saplings and shrubs offer cover and create a vibrant nursery for small animals and songbirds. As trees mature and soar to new heights, they offer refuge and nesting spots for a diverse mix of creatures, from foxes to Cooper’s hawks. In their mature phase, these towering trees support a dense understory, offering a home to bears and white-tailed deer, all sustained by a continuous exchange between flora and fauna.

Protecting this complex ecosystem is a challenge some may assume is at odds with paper production. However, the U.S. paper and packaging industry has taken significant steps to minimize its impact on and support the growth of this vibrant biome. That includes efforts to manage the long-term health of forests, reduce waste in the manufacturing process and enhance the recycling of its products.

Read on to discover three critical ways that sustainability serves as a guiding principle for the paper industry:

Thoughtful Stewardship

Responsible forestry is the first and foremost consideration, and it has been the backbone of the U.S. paper industry for decades. Working with private forest owners that practice sustainable forest management ensures the health and vitality of the trees, filters and cleans the water flowing through forests, helps prevent soil erosion and supports biodiversity. These growing forests provide powerful mitigation against climate change by maximizing carbon sequestration and storage. 

A healthy demand for renewable forest products, including paper and paper-based packaging, incentivizes private landowners to maintain their properties for tree cultivation rather than succumb to development pressures. This relationship ensures forests remain forests to meet the needs of current and future generations. One-third of U.S. land is forested, and half of that is privately owned. Each year, U.S. forests grow nearly twice the tree volume that’s harvested.

A Low-Waste Process

At paper mills, logs are stripped of their bark before processing. Rather than going to waste, this bark is collected, combined with other wood residue and used as biofuel to power the mills’ operations. The practice is a neat example of the circular economy, where waste becomes energy and enhances production efficiency.

After the remaining wood is chipped and moved to a digester, water is used to separate the wood fibers from lignin, a natural alcohol that holds them together. It leaves behind a pulp that is dried to become paper. This water-intensive process produces surprisingly little waste; more than 90% of the water used is cleaned and returned to the environment, ensuring ecosystem resilience.

Recycling As A Priority

Paper is highly recyclable, and its cellulose fibers can be reused up to seven times. From magazines to cereal boxes and shipping boxes to gift wrap, paper products undergo a transformative journey through various forms of reuse.

The industry’s $7 billion investment in recycling infrastructure underpins high consumer recycling rates. The financial commitment has led to technological breakthroughs, such as new technologies to process hard-to-recycle items like plastic-coated paper cups.

More paper is recovered for recycling from municipal solid waste by weight than glass, plastic, steel and aluminum combined, while cardboard boasts a 93% recycling rate.

Today, eco-consciousness is a business imperative that customers are driving. According to Forbes Research’s State of Sustainability Survey, 57% of C-suite executives report increased customer demands for sustainable practices, and 59% of leaders in retail and consumer firms now have significant initiatives regarding sustainable packaging practices.

“Our entire business depends on the sustainability of forests. It’s our most important resource.”

These statistics underscore the growing importance of integrating sustainability into business strategies, and corporate decision makers are taking note. Jonathan Kraft, president of The Kraft Group, said, “Over the last couple of years since the pandemic ended, I’ve found that CEOs of large companies from all types of industries, including consumer packaged goods, industrial and even financial services, want to talk to me about paper packaging and its benefits. They especially want to under-stand the benefits of paper versus substrates like plastics and if we can help them re-engineer their packaging.”

As consumers try to align their purchasing decisions with their regard for the environment, the story of paper manufacturing offers hope. Through its commitment to sustainability, the industry has shown that economic progress and environmental stewardship are not mutually exclusive. “Our entire business depends on the sustainability of forests,” said Sophie Beckham, chief sustainability officer at International Paper, a U.S.-based paper manufacturer. “It’s our most important resource.” 

From the forest floor to the final product, every step of a magazine or pizza box’s journey can be designed with its ecological footprint in mind. Crucially, that journey isn’t just about minimizing environmental impact; it’s also about harnessing opportunities to improve the environment when they present themselves.