Paper’s Circular Economy:
How Our Industry Makes Less Waste

Paper’s Circular Economy:
How Our Industry Makes Less Waste

Circular economy

Take. Make. Waste.

Those three words sum up the linear industrial model behind much of modern life. Natural resources are extracted, manufactured into products for our temporary use and then thrown away at the end of their life. The problems with this economic model are obvious. It treats raw materials and energy as infinite. Its end result, ultimately, is waste—more than 2 billion tons of which is added to landfills every year.

The alternative to the linear economy is a circular one. So, just what is a circular economy? The circular economy is based on three principles: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems.

It’s focused on recycling, renewing and reusing natural resources. Across its entire value chain, from manufacturing to consumption, the circular economy is a radical, necessary reframing of how we interact with the environment.

The paper industry began embracing the circular economy decades ago, long before the term entered the mainstream. It’s the economic and supply chain model that drives innovation in our industry as we continue to refine what it means to us.

The primary natural resource our industry relies on is, of course, trees. Trees are naturally renewable. Paper is readily recyclable. These simple facts help make our industry a paradigm of the circular economy. But as an exemplar of the circular economy model, our industry goes far beyond the basics. At every step of our value chain, from harvesting trees to powering mills, we’re focused on minimizing our environmental impact. What’s more, we’re helping to leave the planet better than we found it.

The Circular Economy Is a Circle of Caring

We like to refer to our relationship with trees as our circle of caring—a closed loop that, for us, is all about being good stewards of the environment.

Our industry’s circular economy and closed-loop supply chain begin with the forests that supply trees. We work only with people who manage these forests sustainably, taking a holistic view that balances economic, social and environmental needs. Every year in the United States, we plant roughly twice as much wood as we harvest. This is one reason why the 823 million acres of forests in the United States, once subject to deforestation, are now thriving, with a net gain in the past decade that’s among the top 10 countries worldwide. Our forests act as buffers and links between protected wilderness areas, and our sustainable forestry practices maximize the land’s ability to mitigate climate change via carbon sequestration.

Once we’ve harvested trees, we use them in their entirety, ensuring that no part ends up as waste in landfills. (That’s our zero-waste commitment.) About one-quarter of harvested wood is used for the building blocks of our world: floors and doors, furniture and shipping crates. Three-quarters is used for the pulpwood from which paper is made.

We even leave behind limbs, pine needles and other small tree parts on the forest floor. They form habitats for animals, and bugs feed on their organic matter as they decompose, attracting birds that, in turn, feed on them.

At our pulp and paper mills, we use natural resources efficiently—often more than once. Water is used, filtered and reused in multiple production cycles before being sent to water treatment plants, not waterways. Roughly two-thirds of the energy our mills use is self-generated from renewable biomass, such as leaves and bark.

At the International Paper containerboard mill in Rome, Georgia, for instance, bark powers the mill’s boilers, producing steam that generates electricity. When wood chips are cooked in the digester, chemicals are burned off to produce steam that, again, generates electricity.

“The whole process is one continuous closed loop,” says Alex Singleton, the mill’s fiber supply manager.

Then there’s paper itself—an inherently circular product. Its fibers can be recycled up to seven times. It’s one of the most recycled materials in the United States, accounting for two-thirds of recycled solid waste. It can be downcycled into corrugated boxes, tissue paper, packaging and more. But it doesn’t have to be regenerated back into paper. The materials that make up paper waste, such as cellulose and lignin, can also be used as biodegradable alternatives to fossil fuels, to create low-calorie sweeteners, and more.

Simple Changes to Paper Recycling, Big Impact for the Planet

We continue to innovate on everything from products to processes. That means paper bottles, cellulose building materials and 100% recycled cardboard boxes; mills running on solar power and putting unused energy back into the grid; and new recycling technology such as Georgia-Pacific’s Juno®, which captures previously unrecyclable commercial waste. “The objective is that it will divert more waste away from landfills”—up to 90% of what’s processed—“and put it back into the circular economy,” says Christer Henriksson, Juno’s president. “All of these recyclables that we divert away from landfills will be brought back into the consumer industry.”

We know we can increase circularity in our industry as we create the products consumers use every day. And we hope you’ll continue to do your part in accelerating the circular economy shift. By using pulp and paper products, you practice good environmental stewardship. By recycling them, you reintroduce them into the circular economy. You perpetuate the multiuse cycle that benefits you, us and our shared planet.

Remember: The act of recycling, as simple and small as it may seem, is fundamental to the circular economy. “It’s critical to keeping this sustainability story going,” says Cathy Foley, Pratt Industries’ vice president of industry relations and supply chain. “So, consumers, please keep recycling, and recycle the right way.”