How many trees perish to make a book?
Whenever a book is printed, a forest perishes: it’s an impression that’s alive and well amongst a significant number of people. In times when sustainability is high on the agenda — and rightly so — paper increasingly suffers a poor reputation. But should it? Exactly how sustainable can paper be? Allow us to make the case for paper in ten questions and answers.
1. Which resources do you need to produce paper?
As everyone knows, paper is made from wood. More specifically, paper is made from cellulose fibre. Wood fibre is the most efficient source, but paper can also be made using other resources, such as wool, grass or cotton. Both new fibre and recycled fibre can be used.
2. Which wood does paper production use?
The paper industry mainly relies on the by-product of trees, such as tree crowns, brushwood, sawmill waste and forest thinnings. In Europe, forest thinnings make up 50% of all resources used in the paper industry.
In addition, sustainable woodland management practices are applied in plantations specifically created for paper productions. Various certificates, such as FSC and PEFC, are used to label paper originating from these sustainably managed forests.
3. How much wood is felled to produce a book?
The idea that the paper industry is responsible for the disappearance of forests is a myth. After all, wood is a renewable resource: more trees can always be planted. In the northern hemisphere, around 150% of all woodland felled is replanted. Since 1990, Europe’s forests have grown by 17 million hectares.
The paper industry is in no way responsible for the felling of tropical rainforest — in fact, tropical hardwood is completely unsuitable for paper production.
On a side note: when we talk about felling woodland, we often use the term ’chopping down’. In reality, this is a little misleading — ‘harvesting’ would be a better alternative. Just like wheat or barley, trees can be planted with the intention of harvesting them at a later date. The only difference is that trees take several years to grow, while grain is harvested after just one year.
4. What does the paper production process look like?
In brief, the paper production process consists of two steps. First, pulp is created by mixing fibre, either new or recycled, with a large quantity of water and several other materials, such as glue, colourings and fillers. Next, the water is removed from the pulp in a centrifugal sieving process, and the residual substance is pressed and dried. At the end of the process, we’re left with paper: a collection of thin layers of interwoven fibres, to which a filler or coating is added. These final two substances determine the eventual top coat of the paper.
5. How sustainable is the production process?
There’s no point denying it: making paper uses a significant amount of water and energy. To produce one tonne of paper, you need about twenty times as much water. An integrated pulp and paper plant can use as much energy in a day as a small town. That’s why huge investments have been made recently to improve energy efficiency and reduce water consumption.
6. What is the paper industry doing to improve sustainability?
The paper industry has made significant investments to optimise the production process and keep energy and resource consumption as low as possible.
One example is our commitment to renewable energy and cogeneration. At present, 52% of the energy we use comes from biomass. Over the past thirty years, our energy consumption has reduced by 56%. CO2 emissions per kilogram of paper produced have fallen by 40% in twenty years,
and water consumption is 56% lower than thirty years ago. We should also point out that only 15% of the water we use is effectively used up: the remaining water is thoroughly purified and returned to nature after being used in the production process. The water that’s returned to rivers and canals is actually cleaner than the water we extracted at the start of the production process. As such, paper mills have effectively become genuine water sanitation plants.
7. What about recycling?
Paper is ideally suited to recycling. In Belgium, no less than 76% of all paper is recycled. Belgian paper manufacturers recycle 1.2 million tonnes of used paper every year. That’s an interesting development, because the paper recycling process uses up to 40% less energy.
8. Why can’t we use recycled paper only?
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to recycle paper endlessly. Paper can be recycled up to seven times in its original form, which makes it an exceptionally sustainable product. But after those seven times, the paper becomes too weak to use again. To keep the paper cycle going at that point, new fibre needs to be added. How much fibre exactly depends on the type of paper.
9. Does the paper die Keure uses originate from sustainably managed forests?
We’re always happy to guide our customers in their search for the best possible paper for their project. As part of this, we often suggest FSC certified and/or recycled paper, but the final choice is made by our customers. The school books published by our educational department always use FSC-certified paper. We believe it’s important to familiarise our young people — the adults of the future — with ecological thinking as early as possible.
10. Conclusion: how sustainable is a book?
Paper suffers a poor reputation, especially in our digital era. Still, it would be unfair to label paper as a major concern for the environment. Paper is made from a perfectly renewable and recyclable resource: wood. Our sector is strongly committed to reforestation and sustainable woodland management. The paper production process may be energy and water-intensive, but it is sustainable — and in some ways, it makes a positive contribution to the environment.
- Marc Mombaerts & Misjel Vossen. 2012. Goed voor Druk. Academia Press.