Cut the greenwash – get the facts straight about paper and recycling

by: Samantha Choles, Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa.

Cut the greenwash – get the facts straight about paper and recycling

Greenwashing is making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice. These green claims often have no scientific basis – environmental myths have been published so often on the internet that they are deemed as facts.

The most common form of greenwash is that little footer at the bottom of emails – “think before you print” or the “save the planet” messages by opting to receive bills or magazines electronically. This is a cost-saving measure, and a practical one considering the state of the local postal system (and the associated carbon footprint); but instead companies “greenwash” it by saying people are saving trees.

Facts about forestry and farmed trees

Statements about saving trees by not printing are blatantly untrue. Firstly, the fibre for the paper and wood products is not sourced from indigenous forests or rainforests.

Paper along with a myriad of wood-, paper- and tissue-based items are made from farmed trees, and recycled paper (which came from trees in the first place). Certain species of trees are planted in crops in South Africa specifically for the paper and wood industries, with a small percentage harvested for use each year which are then replanted within the same year. This is different to deforestation which is the denuding of forested land for the likes of urban development (shopping mall, homes, office parks) and agriculture.

Plantations are also not irrigated – they get their water from rain and groundwater and the sector even pays a “rain tax” – or streamflow reduction levy. This makes trees – and anything made from them – a renewable resource.

Recycling paper does not save trees

Stating that one’s company has saved X number of trees because they have implemented a paper recycling programme is also misguided. As trees are farmed for the purpose of making paper, they do not need to be saved.

Paper recycling is important for other reasons. It diverts a useful material from landfill which paper, packaging and tissue manufacturers re-use to make stuff people use every day.

The recycling of one tonne of paper will save around three cubic metres of landfill space and that is something to be proud of. And it keeps the carbon in the paper fibre (absorbed from the air by the tree) locked up for longer.

One person’s waste is another’s treasure

Paper recycling – from the collection and buy-back centres to the reprocessing and manufacturing into new products – also sustains local jobs.

Recycling reclaimers and waste pickers have helped to increase the collection of hard-to-get post-consumer waste, especially office paper, which is why keeping the paper recycling separate and dry is better for them – they get more for cleaner paper.

In 2018, 71.7% of recoverable paper – 1,285 million tonnes of documents, newspaper, magazines, cardboard boxes of countless kinds, and milk and juice cartons – was diverted from landfills for re-use.

Using recycled printer paper is not necessarily greener

Recycled printing and copy paper is not made in South Africa – this is imported, carrying an additional carbon footprint. Companies should be purchasing locally made copy paper. There are two well-known South African brands, both of which are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC®) as sustainably produced.

So consider the environment before greenwashing the marketing claims.

But make a noise about using locally produced paper, successful recycling programmes and support informal collectors or small businesses by making their paper and other recyclables available to them.

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