The Circular Economy and the Sustainability of Paper Products

October 24, 2023

As American consumers grow more conscious of the environmental consequences of products they buy, a significant disparity still exists between their perceptions and the actual sustainability of paper products. However, according to a recent study published by Two Sides North America, this gap has lessened over the last two years. The study found that the percentage of consumers who believe paper products are bad for the environment decreased from 48% to 44% between 2021 and 2022. For the paper industry, this is a positive step as we continue to spread awareness about the environmental benefits of paper’s circular life cycle.

What is the circular economy and how does it apply to the paper industry?

The circular economy is an economic system based on the reuse and regeneration of materials or products, particularly in a sustainable or environmentally friendly way. Paper manufacturing is circular because it starts by using an infinitely renewable natural resource and is processed using mostly renewable, carbon-neutral energy. Recycling is what closes the loop of the circular life cycle of paper products. With a recycling rate of 68%, according to the American Forest and Paper Association, paper is the most recycled material in the United States, compared to metals at 34%, glass at 25%, and plastics at 9%, per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

How is the paper industry impacting the U.S. forest area?

Fifty-five percent of those surveyed believe U.S. forests are diminishing, a decrease from the 60% recorded in 2021. Despite paper often being linked to forest loss, the actual data tells a different story: between 1990 and 2020, U.S. forest area expanded by 18 million acres, which is equivalent to the size of 1,200 NFL football fields daily, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Global Forest Resources Assessment. The demand for sustainably sourced paper and paper-based packaging provides a strong financial incentive for private landowners to responsibly manage and harvest their land while preserving it as a forest, rather than converting it for non-forest purposes or selling it for development, which is the primary cause of deforestation in the U.S., as per the U.S. Forest Service.

The lifecycle of paper products is inherently circular. The raw materials used are continually replenished, manufacturing relies on renewable and carbon-neutral biofuel, and used paper is recycled more than any other material. So, while the Two Sides North America survey shows that there are still widespread misconceptions about the sustainability of paper products, the overall consensus seems to be improving.


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