Is paper packaging sustainable?

Sustainability of paper sources


  • Paper production is not responsible for destruction of rain-forests
  • Rain-forest trees are typically hardwood and are slow growing.
  • Europe’s forests have increased in size by a third over the last century
  • Softwood timber is used for the manufacture paper used in packaging as it is stronger
  • Softwood trees grow quickly and absorb Co2 during their growth period
  • 80+% of paper is recycled in the UK
  • It requires less energy and water to produce paper from recycled pulp
  • Trees are a renewable resource and more are planted than are cut down

Saving trees – Rain-forest destruction

Once upon a time there was a well-meaning drive to save paper to save trees. This was the result of an increasing awareness and concern about the destruction of rain-forests around the world.

Rain forests were (and still are) being cut down to make way for alternative land uses. 

The small farmers practice slash and burn techniques to clear a large enough area to farm for a couple of years until the soil is depleted of its vital nutrients.

 Slash and burn rainforests

Large agricultural corporations are clearing huge areas of rain-forest to grow soya beans in South America and palm-oil in Asia. 

The rain-forest trees are typically slow growing hardwood trees and are used for furniture, construction projects, plywood manufacture, boat building, coffins, flooring decking, etc.

Some fine printing papers contain some hardwoods to give a fine finish, but these are not necessarily from rain-forests, and can be purchased form FSC® accredited sources that are sustainable and can be traced back to source.

Forests in Europe – a different story

The map, shown below, is the result of a research project led by Dutch scholar Richard Fuchs from the University of Wageningen.

Fuchs research shows that Europe’s forests grew by a third over the past 100 years. At the same time, farmland decreased due to technological innovations such as mechanisation, better drainage and irrigation systems. Relatively less area was needed to produce the equivalent amount of food.

Fuchs’ interesting observation: forests and settlements grew concurrently and Europe is a much greener continent today than it was 100 years ago.

If you click on the map below you will be able to view a fascinating interactive map showing visually, the changes that have taken place over the last century or so.

Click on this LINK to see the increase in forest area between 1900 and 2010.

This data demonstrates that Europe’s forests grew by a third between 1900 and 2010. There are a number of reasons for this. One is a decreased reliance on timber for construction, ships, furniture, and fuel to name a few.

Both the Netherlands and Britain had empires that relied heavily on the sea and their naval strength. In order to build ships, they needed wood — and by 1900, only 2 – 3% of their territory was still covered with forests. 

Both countries have since been able to increase their forest area to 10-12%, as data from 2010 shows.

In 1992, the European Union decided that the CAP needed a major update. The new CAP added environmental concerns to its agenda, encouraging farmers to make responsible environmental decisions, preserve the landscape and its natural resources, and fight against climate change. It also emphasised technological growth and changed its focus from price support to direct aid payments that would help farmers improve their farms and care for the environment at the same time.


This allowed a reduction in agricultural land while still maintaining or increasing output. Hence, fields got continuously bigger to better manage and maintain them with machines. Marginal land was not farmed allowing for an increase in woodland areas.

The increase of forests in Europe indicate that we do not have an issue with the use of timber for paper production. Rain-forest destruction is a separate problem that will not be solved by saving paper. 

European forest

What wood is used for paper?

Paper manufacturing mainly uses offcuts and trimmings from trees used in furniture and timber production. The unwanted wood is transformed into wood chips which are then pulped.

There are a wide range of hardwood and softwood trees that are used in paper-making. Hardwoods are trees that lose their leaves in autumn. The shorter hardwood fibres provide bulk, smoothness and opacity and are used to produce fluting medium (wavy layers inside cardboard) and printing and writing paper.

Softwoods are cone bearing trees with needles or scale-like leaves. They provide long cellulose fibres used to produce papers where strength is needed such as paper used for packaging materials.Protega Paper cushioning

Softwood is the source of about 80% of the world’s production of timber. It has various applications, of which the most popular are woodwork, and furniture. Softwood is more commonly used for furniture than hardwood, mainly because is tends to be cheaper. This is because softwood trees tend to grow faster and hence are easier and cheaper to produce. This makes softwood more environmentally friendly, as it is more easily renewable than hardwood.Sustainable farming of trees

Most trees used for paper come from managed forests. Even though the trees in these managed forests may look like “woods,” they are an agricultural crop – like vegetables on a farm. The trees are grown to be made into products for human use. 

“Not using paper in order to save trees is like not eating salad in order to “save” vegetables.”

In fact, many forests might not exist in the first place if trees weren’t planted and harvested by industry. It takes from 10 – 20 years for trees to grow until they are large enough for harvesting. During that time, the trees provide a place to live  for many species of plants and animals, and they add oxygen to the earth’s atmosphere.

Will we use up all the trees if we continue to cut them down for paper?

 Planting trees for the future

Whenever trees are harvested, more trees are planted in their place. Trees are a renewable resource. As long as we manage forests and plant trees to replace the ones cut down, trees will continue to increase in number.  More trees are destroyed by fire and insects than are cut down to make paper. On average, when a tree is harvested for making paper, five more are planted in its place.

If saving trees isn’t the issue, why do we bother recycling paper?

Paper is one of the few consumer products that is easy and cost effective to recycle. It can be made into many new products including corrugated boxes, packaging, newsprint, tissue, and writing paper, among other things. Producing one tonne of recycled paper uses 23,400 fewer litres of water than producing non-recycled paper and requires less energy.

For organisations to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly, one step to take is to replace plastic packaging with paper based packaging. Because paper is made from organic sources, it is biodegradable, compostable, recyclable and sustainable.

Protega Global is innovating and developing paper based packaging products that are a viable and cost effective alternative to plastic packaging

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