Commentary: Paper or Plastic? In a Circular Economy, the Answer Is Clear
In today’s industrial marketplace, the concept of a circular economy is finally inching beyond theoretical ideals to real-world applications that will make our planet healthier and more sustainable. But becoming truly circular doesn’t come easy or cheap. It’s a challenge that requires intent, investment and innovation. The paper industry figured this out decades ago, and it has been at the leading edge of circularity ever since.
In fact, paper manufacturing exemplifies the very definition of circularity – industrial processes and economic activities that are 1) restorative or regenerative by design, 2) enable resources used to maintain their highest value for as long as possible, and 3) aim to eliminate waste through the superior design of materials, products and systems. Most alternatives don’t even come close. Take plastics, for example.
Plastic packaging is made from a variety of plastic resins. These include polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soft drink and water bottles, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) milk and water jugs, film products (including bags and sacks) made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and other containers and packaging (including clamshells, trays, caps, lids, egg cartons, loose fill, produce baskets, coatings and closures) made up of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), polypropylene (PP) and other resins (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). All of these resins are derived from non-renewable fossil fuels, namely natural gas, feedstocks derived from natural gas processing, and feedstocks derived from crude oil refining (U.S. Energy Information Administration).
Single-use plastics also are incredibly energy-intensive to produce. In fact, plastic production accounts for more than 3% of total U.S. energy consumption and generates large amounts of carbon pollution (U.S. Department of Energy).
Plastics are a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. solid waste stream and, critical to any discussion of circularity, very little of it gets recycled (U.S. EPA). Drawing on the most recent EPA data available and last year’s plastic-waste exports, a new report published by environmental organizations Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup estimates that Americans recycled only 5% to 6% of their plastics, down from the 8.7% reported by the EPA in 2018. But the real figure could be even lower, the report said, given factors such as the plastic waste collected for recycling that is instead sent to cement kilns and burned. The report states that, “Despite the stark failure of plastics recycling, the plastics, packaging and products industries have waged a decades-long misinformation campaign to perpetuate the myth that plastic is recyclable.”
“Plastics recycling does not work, it never will work, and no amount of false advertising will change that,” Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional administrator, said in a press release.
“There is no circular economy for plastics,” added Jan Dell, founder of The Last Beach Cleanup. “Plastics and products companies co-opted the success of other materials recycling and America’s desire to recycle to create the myth that plastic is recyclable.”
The life cycle of paper tells a different story.
Paper products are manufactured using an infinitely renewable natural resource – trees that are purpose-grown, harvested and re-grown in sustainably managed forests. Thanks in great part to the sustainable forestry practices and third-party forest certification advanced by the paper industry, net U.S. forest area increased around 18 million acres over the past 30 years (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization).
The paper manufacturing process uses mostly renewable, carbon-neutral energy generated from biomass which, when burned, recycles biogenic carbon (carbon absorbed from the atmosphere and stored in trees) back into the environment. This fact, combined with investments in energy efficiency and process improvements helped the U.S. paper industry reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per ton of product produced by 24.1% between 2005 and 2020 (American Forest and Paper Association). According to the U.S. EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the pulp and paper industry is not a major contributor to climate change. In 2020, the industry was responsible for 0.6% of total CO2e emissions, compared to 0.5% in 2019. The industry’s actual emissions were slightly lower in 2020, but increased as a percentage of total emissions, which decreased 11% due to the reduction in transportation-related fossil fuel emissions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Water used in the manufacturing process at a typical U.S. paper mill is recycled up to 10 times. Then it’s cleaned to meet strict state and federal water quality standards and most of it, around 90%, is returned to its source. About 1% remains in the manufactured paper products, and the rest evaporates back into the environment (National Council on Air and Stream Improvement, NCASI). And mills that produce kraft pulp have highly efficient recovery systems that capture and recycle about 97% of pulping chemicals (NCASI).
While all of these unique environmental characteristics make paper arguably one of the most sustainable products on earth, it’s the paper industry’s investment in recycling infrastructure that makes the paper life cycle truly circular. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. industry has voluntarily bankrolled billions of dollars in recycling infrastructure, including $5 billion in investments announced or planned between 2019 and 2024. Today, 94% of Americans have access to a community paper recycling program, and 79% have access to residential/curbside recycling programs, this according to a comprehensive national study commissioned by AF&PA in 2021.
Because paper recycling is accessible and easy, U.S. businesses and consumers have embraced it in a big way. With a recycling rate of 68% (AF&PA), paper is the most recycled material in the United States (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), and that number jumps to a remarkable 91.4% for cardboard packaging (AF&PA).
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