Paper Vapour – Paper’s Carbon Emissions


Paper’s Carbon Emissions

Paper has a surprisingly big carbon footprint. Although paper is based on a renewable resource, a discussion paper published by the European EPN in 2013 shows that the way paper is produced and used may result in more green house gas emissions than global aviation.

You can read and download the discussion paper here:

Paper Vapour - PDF

Lifecycle of Paper

Carbon emissions occur throughout the life of a piece of paper: when it is sourced from a forest, when it is pulped, when it is transported and made into something to be used and when it is thrown away. If we use paper wastefully through short life products such as junk mail, inefficient office printing, or virgin tissue paper, it may only take a few weeks for forest carbon to be cut, pulped, shipped, used and dumped into the atmosphere.

In Europe and America we use on average 200kg of paper per year so this means our daily dose of packaging, junk mail, tissues and photocopying adds up to 2 or more tonnes of carbon emissions. If we want to stop contributing to climate change, changing our paper habits can really help.In particular, we should avoid wasteful use of paper for pointless, short-life purposes, like unwanted advertising or excessive packaging. The carbon balance of books remaining on shelves for decades is of course different. This is why we advocate extending the lifespan of products and eliminating wastefulness which ultimately will cut down our climate impact.


How can we reduce our paper vapour emissions?

Tools and Resources

Paper’s carbon footprint can be cut by using less of it, substituting recycled for virgin fibre products and cleaning up production.

  1. Using less paper reduces the carbon footprint of each step of the paper life-cycle, so it is by far the best way to cut paper vapour emissions. Reducing your paper footprint by around 100kg per year would save a tonne of carbon emissions.
  2. By closing the loop, recycled paper products cut the emissions from two stages of the life-cycle (sourcing and disposal). Producing recycled paper pulp also uses much less energy than pulping wood, reducing emissions there, and in Europe recycled paper products tend to have travelled many fewer miles than their virgin equivalents, saving transport emissions too.
  3. Pulp companies and paper product converters and printers can reduce emissions through energy efficiency and by shifting to renewable sources of energy. They can source wood, pulp and paper from suppliers closer to home and insist on certified evidence of sustainable forest management. Forest certifiers should consider forest carbon emissions as part of their assessment of sustainability.

The Environmental Paper Network’s vision is for a paper industry that has zero carbon emissions.

Contact us to find out how you can help us to eliminate those paper vapours!

Why is paper’s carbon footprint so large?

There are five stages in the life-cycle of paper products and they all cause carbon emissions.

1. Sourcing

When trees are cut from forests, the store of carbon in trees and in the soil is reduced. This is particularly a problem when logging occurs in natural forests which have not been cut before and, incredibly, remaining natural forests are still cleared to produce paper and other wood-based commodities. Forest carbon loss calculations are complex. Responsible forest management can protect forest carbon, but it’s a no-brainer to recognise that clearcutting a forest reduces the carbon stored in it. Some of the worst paper industry cases are in places like Indonesia or Russia, where deep peat soils, which store vast quantities of carbon, are degraded by logging and draining, emitting huge amounts of carbon.

2. Pulping

Knock on wood – it’s hard! Pulping it uses a lot of energy – you need as much energy to make a tonne of paper as you do to make a tonne of steel. Pulp is made either mechanically, by literally smashing or shredding it to smithereens, or chemically, by chipping it then stewing it in a chemical soup. Either way, pulp mills are huge engineering works and they require major energy supplies. Some mills use renewable energy sources, but many use wood (which takes us back to sourcing) or fossil fuels, and these mean yet more carbon emissions. Renewables tend to have a lower footprint than fossil based materials such as steel and concrete. However, paper is still very resource intensive.

The increasing use of wood based biomass, which will be a major driver for wood use over the next 3 decades, can also be problematic. By 2050, annual wood demand for energy could reach 6-8 billion m3, which would require more than twice the wood removed for all uses today. This clearly poses a challenge for sustainable land-use planning. Badly managed bioenergy production can destroy valuable ecosystems, undermine food and water security, harm rural communities and prolong wasteful energy consumption.

3. Transport

The concept of ‘food miles’ is familiar, but how many miles have the fibres in the paper you use travelled? In Europe, we import pulp and paper from Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, Chile, Canada the USA and most other corners of the globe where trees grow. We ship waste paper to China then import it back again as packaging. Almost all of that transportation and distribution is fuelled by carbon emitting fossil fuels.

4. Use

Raw paper from mills supplies a vast industry of ‘converters’, who make it into useful things, like cardboard boxes, paper bags, food packages, sanitary materials, office products and envelopes. The print industry does huge runs of catalogues, magazines, leaflets and books. These are distributed to retailers or in the mail, making their way into businesses and homes where they finally serve their purpose. The carbon footprint of all of these processes is part of the footprint of the paper we use.

5. Disposal

Almost as soon as paper has completed its journey to us, its end user, we throw it away. After glancing at the report, ripping open the package or picking the junk mail off the mat, we chuck it into the bin. In Europe and America, paper and cardboard is the single biggest component of domestic waste streams. The richer a country is, the bigger proportion of its waste is made up of paper. Garbage trucks use fossil fuels to run, and even though recycling rates have increased in recent years, we are still sending at least a quarter of the paper we use to landfill sites to rot. Decomposing paper turns to either carbon dioxide or methane, which is an even more damaging greenhouse gas.

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