Looking up into the branches of a managed pine forest

Print & the environment

Friday 24 September 2021

Is there an elephant in the print room? I’m diving into the environmental statistics about paper and print.

No series of articles looking at the benefits of print would be complete without addressing the apparent elephant in the room: its environmental impact.

The main objections I hear about using print revolve around its environmental impacts: saving a tree, doing your bit for the planet by reducing your carbon footprint or reducing paper waste via the paperless office. We will all have come across ideas like these that support eschewing paper in favour of electronic devices.

Despite a successful anti-greenwashing campaign launched in 2015 by Two Sides, unsubstantiated or misleading environmental claims about paper and print still appear all too often. And it seems that they are successful at reinforcing existing consumer misconceptions, with 66% of those surveyed by Two Sides in 2021 believing that electronic communication is better for the environment than paper.1

As Two Sides point out, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) requires that environmental claims are based on the full life cycle of the advertised product. With so many variables involved, it is near impossible to achieve this in an overview of the print and paper industries. There is also an incredible number of statistics out there – some of which simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.

With these caveats in mind, let’s look at some information about paper and print to see if there is an environmental elephant in the print room.

Sustainable source

With a few exceptions, paper is made from cellulose fibres that come from wood. In Europe, we make over 90% of our paper using wood from European forests.2 It is, therefore, possible for cultivation and manufacturing to occur more locally to one another. And importantly, it increases the chances of our paper coming from sustainably managed forests.

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), ‘more than 60% of forests in EU-28 are certified, mostly under the FSC or PEFC or both’. The FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) are forest certification systems. PEFC describes itself as ‘devoted to ensuring that forests are managed according to environmental, social and economic criteria’. FSC certification provides various assurances, including ‘Zero deforestation: Although trees are harvested, there is no net loss of forest over time.’

Could more European forests be certified? Possibly. However, as Two Sides explain, ‘In northern Europe, where almost all ancient Forests are protected, paper comes from managed semi-natural forests where the cycle of planting, growing and logging is carefully controlled.’ And, as the EEA continue: ‘The proportion of certified forests in Europe is substantial compared with the world as a whole, as only 12% of the world’s forest areas are certified.’3

Seventy four per cent of wood and 90% of pulp purchased by the European pulp and paper industries is, however, FSC or PEFC certified.1 And manufacturers can display FSC and PEFC certification marks on products manufactured from certified forests, making it much easier to see at a glance which papers come from sustainable sources and haven’t contributed to deforestation.

Stores carbon

One of the many benefits of trees is their ability to absorb CO2 and store it as carbon in their biomass. And it is young growing trees which absorb the most CO24, making a sustainably managed forest where trees are felled and replanted advantageous for carbon storage.

Once the carbon is stored, it remains within the biomass – even after the tree has been harvested and processed. So products made from wood (paper included) continue to store carbon throughout their lifetimes.

Heavily regulated

To ensure the environment is increasingly protected, the paper industry has become heavily regulated. Certification schemes may be voluntary, but many regulations are not, meaning that paper manufacturers must also tread lightly in other areas.

For example, water is an essential part of paper manufacture, but 93% of used water is returned to the environment after use in good condition. The remaining 7% either evaporates, remains in the product, or is bound up in solid waste.5

Like the paper industry, the printing industry is also heavily regulated. For example, many printers are certified to ISO14001 – an environmental management system requiring continual improvement in environmental issues such as air pollution, water, waste management, soil contamination, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and resource use and efficiency. There is always more than can be done, but ISO14001 certification, like the FSC and PEFC marques, can help you identify printers who plan to take their environmental responsibilities seriously.

Never obsolete

Provided you understand the language, you can access information published in some of the earliest books today, just as you could have done on the day they were published. Books are not limited by outdated operating systems, software or browsers. They remain accessible until they have worn out.

Easy to recycle

Paper is the most recycled raw material in the UK. According to PEFC, we recycle 79% of paper in the UK.6 In Europe, the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) quoted a 73.9% paper recycling rate in 2020.2 These figures are close to the maximum levels possible given that some paper products – those used in healthcare, for example – are unsuitable for recycling. And some are intended to be kept, rather than recycled – books, for example.

Such high paper recycling rates are not surprising given the excellent infrastructure that the industry has developed over the years and the thriving market for recovered pulp.

A closed-loop industry

Recovered paper fibres can be used in new paper products – either on their own as 100% recycled paper or combined with virgin fibres. Mixing virgin and recovered fibres extends the life of the pulp because paper fibres shorten each time they are recycled until they will no longer form into sheets. However, even these end-of-life fibres still have a use. They are used to make products such as egg boxes which, once used, can be composted.

Paper sometimes needs to be coated in plastic for practical reasons. The most infamous example from recent years being the paper coffee cup, which has long been considered unrecyclable. However, one paper mill’s dedication to sustainability now means they can solve even this complex recycling challenge.

CupCycling™ is the innovative closed-loop recycling initiative developed by James Cropper that can separate the paper fibre and the plastic used to make paper coffee cups. Ninety-five per cent of the cup waste can be converted back into paper fibres and reused. James Cropper worked with Selfridges to collect their used paper coffee cups and then closed the loop, using the recovered fibres to make the iconic Selfridges paper bags.

So what of the idea of ‘saving a tree’?

Paper is a comparatively small user of forest wood. Worldwide, around 13% of forest wood is used for making paper, compared with 50% for fuel and over 30% for construction.7 So the production of paper doesn’t place a heavy demand on forests.

Whole trees are also unlikely to be harvested for the sole purpose of making paper. Pulp for paper is made from sawmill chips, sawdust and the external parts of the trunk below the bark, which would be cut off to square the remaining trunk wood to become sawn timber.4 It’s possible to consider pulp as almost a by-product of the timber industry – using the part of the tree which might otherwise be wasted.

One final thought: European forests are growing. Green Source gives the annual growth of European forests (612 million m3) as far greater than the annual harvesting (455 million m3) rate.4 And Two Sides agree, quoting forest growth of 58,360 square kilometres between 2005 and 2020, which they equate to an area larger than Switzerland, or 1,500 football pitches every day.


1 Two Sides, ‘Paper’s Place in a Post-Pandemic World’, Trend Tracker Study, (2021)

2 Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI), ‘Key Statistics 2020, European pulp & paper industry’, (2020)

3 European Environment Agency (EEA), ‘European Forest Ecosystems – State and Trends’, 5 (2016)

4 Green Source, ‘Circular forest-based economy’ infographic

5 Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI), ‘Sustainability Report’, (2018)

6 Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), ‘Pulp, Paper & Packaging’

7 Two Sides, ‘Print & Paper, Myths & Facts’

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Hello! I’m Sarah, an independent typographic designer, helping businesses to communicate their unique selling points through printed marketing and communications.

I’ve been sharing my knowledge about design, typography, marketing, branding and printing since 2014. I hope you enjoy reading my blog.

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Sarah Cowan