North American consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of the products they buy and use, and they want to do the right things. But when it comes to paper products, the right things are often buried under an avalanche of misinformation and outright falsehoods that are made to sound plausible. Environmental advocacy is too often wrapped in a veneer of misleading, science-sounding terminology, or worse, reduced to slogans like “paper equals deforestation” or “billions of trees are cut down every year to make paper packaging.”
Consumers are presented with images of endangered forests in faraway places like the Amazon and Borneo, the implication being that these forests are the source of trees for paper products manufactured in the United States and Canada. The only beneficiaries of these bait-and-switch tactics are anti-paper activists and paper industry competitors, not consumers or the environment.
Most consumers are fair-minded and justifiably concerned about deforestation, so it’s easy to see why many fall for this type of misdirection. A recent Two Sides North America survey showed that 48% of Americans believe paper is bad for the environment, and 60% believe U.S. forests are shrinking. The facts tell a different story. But these misconceptions will continue to proliferate if we don’t actively debunk the myths about paper and the forest.
Every person in the print, paper and paper-based packaging value chain can play an important part in this effort. Sustainable forestry is a comprehensive, science-based approach to protecting and conserving this vital natural resource. But you don’t need to be a scientist or have a special degree to credibly participate in the conversation. All it takes is a basic understanding about the foundations of sustainable forestry and a few facts from credible sources to make the case.
First, let’s lay a little groundwork.
Most people think sustainable forestry simply means planting trees to replace those that are harvested. While that’s certainly a critical element, sustainable forestry is about so much more than that. The U.S. Forest Service defines it as meeting the forest resources needs and values of the present without compromising the similar capability of future generations.
Going far beyond just the physical act of reforestation, sustainable forestry is a land stewardship ethic that integrates the growing, harvesting and regeneration of trees for useful products with the protection and conservation of soil, air and water quality, wildlife habitat and biodiversity, forest contributions to global carbon cycles, aesthetics, and long-term social and economic benefits that meet the needs of society. Achieving these objectives is a tall order, and U.S. and Canadian paper and paper-based packaging companies are instrumental in making it happen. Yes, because it’s the right thing to do, but also because their very existence depends on a thriving and sustainable supply of trees to manufacture the products consumers want and need.
Few enterprises on earth have the benefit of so vast or scientific an infrastructure to promote sustainability and the protection of landscapes and natural values as the North American paper industry. This infrastructure links paper companies; university forestry schools; federal, state and provincial foresters; landowners and loggers; silviculture and soil experts; wildlife biologists; conservation groups; forest certification bodies and others to lead world-class forest stewardship.
Partnerships among these diverse entities drive innovation and real-world sustainability progress grounded in research, the continuing evolution of forestry best management practices, education and training for loggers and landowners, and targeted initiatives to address emerging challenges. In addition, certification organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative rigorously audit forestry practices on the ground to independently certify to paper consumers that the products they use come from responsibly managed forests. More than half of the world’s certified forests are in North America (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2020).
Here are a few key facts to help make the case that paper is not “destroying forests.”
North American forests are a renewable resource and are not shrinking. U.S. forest area grew by 18 million acres between 1990 and 2020, and net forest area in Canada remained stable at 857 million acres during the same period (U.N Food and Agriculture Organization, 2020).
Tree harvesting in the U.S. occurs on less than 2% of forestland each year compared to the nearly 3% disturbed annually by natural events like insects, disease and fire. (U.S. Forest Service, 2019)
About 89% of wood harvested in the U.S. comes from privately owned forests (U.S. Forest Service, 2019) which provide most of the wood for domestically produced wood and paper products. Demand for sustainably produced paper products provides a strong financial incentive for landowners to manage their land responsibly and keep it forested rather than selling or converting it for non-forest uses, which is the leading cause of deforestation in the United States. (U.S. Forest Service, 2019).
Thanks to innovations in sustainable forest management techniques, today’s private forest owners in the U.S. are growing 59% to 98% more wood (depending on geographic region) than they remove from their timberlands. (Forest2Market, 2021)
Over 90% of Canada’s forestland is publicly owned and managed by provincial, territorial and federal governments. Canada’s forest laws are among the strictest in the world, protecting forests and ensuring that sustainable forest management practices are followed across the country. (Natural Resources Canada, 2021)
Harvesting occurs on 0.2% of Canada’s forestlands annually, while 4.7% is disturbed by insects and 0.5% is disturbed by fire. (Natural Resources Canada, 2020)
Submitted: Kathi Rowzie July 14, 2021, Two Sides NA.