Is paper the new plastic? Some questions about sustainability

Paper consumption for disposable objects risks turning into a practice that is anything but sustainable: Dyson's recommendations

Paper and sustainability: Dyson's recommendations
The consumption of non-recycled paper for single-use objects risks turning into a practice that is anything but sustainable: Dyson's recommendations (Photo: Dyson)

Thanks to the absolute need to fight thepollution da plastic materials, paper seems to be experiencing a second golden age: the bans applied to disposable plastic bags and straws in several EU countries have generated a new market for disposable paper and cardboard products.

But it is certain that the card is an ecological alternative to the plastic bags? Paper production requires the reduction of approximately 15 trees per ton. And the consumption of resources does not stop at the raw material: the paper industry is also one of the most energy-intensive in Europe. Before seeing it as an ideal solution, you need to ask yourself some questions on paper and sustainability.

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Paper and sustainability: a crucial challenge
Is paper the new plastic? Dyson's recommendations to avoid turning the search for a sustainable alternative into the creation of another ecological monster (Photo: Dyson)

Dyson and the crucial question: is paper the new plastic?

Every year the Germany consumes alone 19 million tons of paper, of which almost one and a half million consists of paper for hygienic use, which is not recycled. In 2021, each German consumed a whopping 228 kilos of paper, almost 100 reams of A4 sheets.

La need to replace the plastic, starting from disposable items, at this rate, could lead us to generate another monster: a golem made of non-recycled paper which weighs not only as waste, but also in terms of resource consumption. The pandemic emergency has greatly spread the adoption of disposable hygiene products, and more and more European companies are turning towards disposable solutions based on paper and cardboard.

More or less the same thing happens in packaging: “Paper is generally biodegradable and decomposes faster than plastic”, and is therefore often preferred. “Ma how sustainable it really is this material?”, he asks Dyson. The technological group of the English and Singaporean company, which promotes projects through the James Dyson Foundation environmental education in schools of various countries around the world, questioned the topic "paper and sustainability".

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The Dyson infographic on paper consumption in Germany
Dyson's infographic on paper consumption in Germany: the paper industry weighs twice as much on forests as palm oil production (Photo: Dyson)

Paper industry and sustainability: a cumbersome issue

According to a survey by NABU, a German NGO founded in 1899 to protect biodiversity affiliated with BirdLife International, between 2000 and 2010, the paper industry caused the felling of so many trees in Indonesian rainforest to overcome the impact of palm oil production.

Precisely, Dyson recalls, our paper consumption has taken its toll on the rainforest double that of the very expensive palm oil industry (responsible for the loss of over 1990 million hectares of rainforest between 2015 and 24).

Unfortunately, the problem doesn't end with entire habitats being razed to the ground for our eight-ply toilet paper. In addition to raw materials, the paper industry requires enormous amounts of water and energy, and often uses bleaching chemicals that can be very dangerous for life. human health and technology.

As Dyson reminds us, the paper industry is also one of the six sectors with the highest energy consumption in Germany. In particular, paper production consumes large quantities of natural gas: in 2020, only in Germany, “burned more than 27 billion kilowatt hours”, 8 percent of the total gas consumption of German industry.

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Deforestation is not the only problem linked to the sustainability of paper: emissions and energy consumption must also be evaluated (Photo: Envato)

Paper and sustainability, the environmental impact of the industry must immediately be reduced

Then there is the problem of emissions. To produce one gram of paper, approximately 0,70 grams of CO2 are emitted: considering that a sheet weighs on average 40 grams, this means that the production of a ream of paper has emissions comparable to those necessary for the production of a beef hamburger .

The German paper industry produces 10,6 million tons of CO2 every year, equivalent to the emissions of approximately 4,5 million cars. In fact, to produce just one gram of paper, approximately 0,70 grams of carbon dioxide are emitted: a simple ream of 500 sheets requires the same emissions of a very eco-friendly car (21 g/km CO2) that travels almost a thousand kilometres.

In Germany, Dyson underlines, a lot is being done to reduce plastic waste: as in most European countries, disposable bags and tableware plastic are banned from restaurants and businesses, and many are turning to “ecological” paper alternatives and cardboard.

The production of paper, however, is not at all irrelevant in terms of environmental impact: in addition to the forest pressure, the emissions and the consumption of enormous quantities of water (440 thousand liters for a ton of white paper), there is the still partly unresolved issue ofuse of recycled paper.

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According to Dyson, companies and public administrations should act with internal policies that limit the use of paper (Photo: Envato)

Recycling: paper still consumes too many resources and measures are needed

In Europe, in 2022, only the 12,8 percent of paper material used came from recycling: in Germany, the percentage reached 13,4 percent, in Italy 21,6 percent and in France 22,2 percent. No one has done better: evidently, it is used in the Old Continent too much paper produced from virgin raw material. Above all, Dyson underlines, if we consider that some types of paper packaging they can be recycled up to 25 times.

The situation of the paper market in Europe becomes clearer by taking the example ofItaly, second largest EU producer after Germany. Scrolling through the data disclosed by Assocarta, we note that while the production of packaging and graphic papers recorded a drop of more than 10 percent, the volumes of sanitary papers continue to grow (+0,3 percent).

Napkins, towels and disposable handkerchiefs are becoming the core business of arapidly evolving industry but struggling with a constant drop in production, partly linked to the heavy consequences of increases in the cost of energy on the sector.

Faced with this scenario, the most reasonable solution is to further limit paper consumption, favoring the use of recycled paper and cardboard.

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According to the German Federal Environment Agency, cold air hand dryers are the most environmentally friendly method of drying hands in public spaces (Photo: Dyson)

How to reduce paper consumption: Dyson's recipe for sustainability

Il Dyson's technical group has drawn up a series of measures that companies and public institutions can apply to further reduce paper consumption. The first step to take, especially when talking about public utility services, is promote the digitization: despite digital identity and payments, every Italian prints approximately 30 pages of paper a day.

Companies should adopt internal policies that allow the printing of documents only when strictly necessary. Possibly inviting collaborators to print double-sided and equipping the offices with reams of recycled paper.

In some contexts the card can be eliminated even more easily: disposable towels can be replaced with fabric solutions or with cold air hand dryers, which according to the German Federal Environment Agency are the most environmentally friendly methodtechnology to dry your hands in public spaces.

Paperless offices and companies are still far away in time: therefore internal policies aimed at reducing consumption should go hand in hand with concrete actions to support reforestation projects, and not only for the compensation mechanisms of one's own sustainability report.

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