File photo: Tracey Adams/INLSA

Boxes. Labels. Books. Your child’s first report card. A tissue for their first heartbreak. All made from paper; a renewable, recyclable material that is an inextricable, often invisible part of our lives. 

Think about it: from the moment we wake up to when we nod off with a book in hand, paper is there.

In a world that strives to go paperless, often for the wrong environmental reasons, the paper industry firmly believes that paper is making a comeback in some quarters, and that it is here to stay. 

The Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (Pamsa) shares the reasons why paper is good for us, our economy and our environment.

1. It’s versatile

Paper is categorised into three principal types – printing and writing, packaging and tissue – and chances are that we use each kind every day.

Paper in its most common form – white copy paper – could be the start of something, a blank canvas, a new project or design, your first book.

A variety of printing and writing papers help to communicate and inform through news and advertising, the label on the coffee jar, the medicine box insert and the month-end supermarket specials.

Paper also educates – from your child’s first reader to their last matric exam.

Paper packages and protects. From our eggs, teabags and cereal, milk and juice in cartons, to medicine and cosmetics. And let’s not forget that new computer equipment for the office.

From the best-seller of your favourite author to a night at the movies with popcorn, a drink and a box of chocolates, paper entertains.

Facial and toilet tissue, kitchen towel and baby and feminine products help to improve our lives through convenience and hygiene.

2. It’s renewable

Paper is produced from farmed trees. Some 600 million trees are grown over 762 000ha for the very purpose of making pulp and paper.

“If it wasn’t for commercially grown trees, our indigenous forests would have been eradicated years ago to meet our fibre, fuel and furniture needs,” explains Pamsa executive director Jane Molony. 

“Sustainable commercial forests have a vital role to play in curbing deforestation and mitigating climate change.”

As with most agricultural crops, trees are planted in rotation. Once mature – after seven to 11 years – they are harvested. But only 9% of the total plantation area is felled annually. 

New saplings are planted in the same year, at an average rate of 260 000 new trees a day, or one-and-a-half saplings per harvested tree. This is what makes the paper we source from wood renewable.

3. It’s recyclable

Recovered paper – the paper and cardboard from our recycling bins – is a valuable raw material and South Africa has been using it as an alternative fibre in papermaking since 1920.

Given that land suitable for the commercial growing of trees is limited, virgin fibre is supplemented with recovered paper. 

On the other hand, an injection of virgin fibre is also needed in the papermaking process because paper fibres shorten and weaken each time they are recycled.

In 2016, 68.4% of recoverable paper was recycled – recoverable paper excludes the likes of books and archived records, and items that are contaminated or destroyed when used, like tissue hygiene products and cigarette paper.

South Africa’s paper recovery rate has increased by 2% year on year, and is well above the global average of 58% (2015).

4. It’s good for the environment

Working forests provide clean air, clean water and the managed conservation of wetlands, grasslands and biodiversity.

Farmed trees are efficient carbon sinks. Every year, South Africa’s commercial forests are estimated to capture 20 million tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, in turn releasing 15 million tons of life-giving oxygen… Memory jog back to that primary school science lesson on photosynthesis.

The carbon remains locked up even after the wood is chipped, pulped and made into the many items we use every day. 

This is a good reason to recycle as it keeps this carbon locked up for even longer. Sent to landfill, paper will naturally degrade along with wet waste and add to unnecessary emissions.

Recycling is a space saver too: one ton of paper saves three cubic metres of landfill space – and the associated costs. Some 1.4 million tons of recyclable paper and paper packaging were diverted from landfill in 2016. 

This is equivalent to the weight of 280 000 African elephants. The same volume would cover 254 soccer fields or fill 1 680 Olympic-sized swimming pools!

The South African pulp and paper industry avoids 1,3 million tons of carbon emissions from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) through the use of renewable biomass-based energy. Emissions are also offset by the trees grown for papermaking.

5. It’s good for the economy

Not only does pulp and paper production add around R3.8 billion to the South African economy annually, the growing and harvesting of trees, making of paper products and recycling them provides sustainable jobs for thousands of people.

Let’s not forget the jobs of engineers and researchers who design advanced technologies and processes that make pulping, papermaking and paper recycling more energy and water-efficient, and the artisans and operators who keep paper production moving.

Add to this the downstream value chains which rely on paper to produce their products, including printing and publishing, media, marketing and advertising, and the myriad sectors which use paper-based packaging to protect their goods during transit.

“Any which way you look at it, paper, tissue and paper-based packaging are essential, and this is a good thing – for our economy and for our environment,” says Molony.

“Invented some 2 000 years ago, paper is one of the oldest ‘technologies’ with research, development and innovation continuing the world over to make more efficient use of trees, recycled paper, water and energy.

“Paper is a great story.”

For more visit the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa website www.thepaperstory.co.za and The Paper Recycling Association of South Africa www.recyclepaper.co.za