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Arbor Month – Why South African businesses going paperless can do more harm than good

By Jane Molony, executive director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA)

With South Africa celebrating Arbor Month in September, it is a good time to appreciate the role that all trees play in greening our cities, as a food source, in providing timber for construction, as a fuel and, of course, as paper, packaging and tissue.

When it comes to paper, however, there is a still a misconception that reduced paper consumption will help save the planet – an idea seen most often in office-based paperless initiatives that are promoted as being greener or as a means to reduce carbon footprints.

The assumption – which happens to be false – is that using less paper will protect the environment. What we fail to recognise, however, is that the digital world comes at a cost to the environment, a cost that – unlike paper – runs on fossil fuels to a large extent.

It is too easy to ignore the impact of our digital lives – because we don’t see the effect of the energy required to power “the cloud”. We don’t see the electricity consumption it takes to send a thousand emails a month. We don’t see the burgeoning e-waste problem as technology becomes obsolete and isn’t properly discarded – it’s a long list.

Part of the problem is that people don’t understand how sustainable forestry – the industry that produces wood and paper products – works. They don’t realise that a recently felled plantation will be replanted with new trees within the same year. They don’t realise that the trees in plantations remove tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and return it as oxygen. They also don’t realise that carbon remains stored in wood even after it’s been turned into pulp for papermaking and other cellulose products. They simply think that paper equals deforestation.

Sustainable forestry, however, is the antithesis of deforestation, which is the removal of trees and natural forests without replanting, such as for some forms of agriculture and the development of housing estates, shopping malls and urban environments. This is why greening these areas with indigenous plants helps to offset their impact.

South Africa’s sustainable forestry centres around the circular approach of planting, growing, harvesting, and replanting fast-growing species. Wood for the country’s forest products comes from sustainably managed exotic trees, not natural or indigenous forests.

This requires that our sector also manages the land and water that plantations share with other biomes, such as grasslands and indigenous forests. While around 850 million trees are farmed over 676,000 hectares by the country’s forestry sector for pulp and paper products, a significant portion is reserved for its biodiversity and conservation value.

South Africa’s pulp, paper, packaging, and tissue products are made from fresh or virgin wood fibres from sustainably cultivated trees, recycled fibre from used paper products, or a mixture of both – depending on the end-use. Technological advances to make these products are also more resource-efficient than they were a few centuries ago, which makes for even more responsible forest management.

The actual cost of businesses going paperless

In 2021, the pulp and paper sector contributed around R28 billion to the South African economy. Although there has been a decline in printing and writing paper demand, we have seen a switch from plastic to paper packaging and cellulose-based innovations, which is encouraging. But there is more to our sector’s impact than its contribution to gross domestic product.

Plantations are grown in rural areas, supporting thousands of households, families, and communities. The South African forestry and forest products sector employs around 150,000 people, and nearly 700,000 people depend on the industry for their livelihoods.

The sector employs people who research tree health, grow seedlings that are more resilient to climate change and disease, plant trees responsibly, nurture them to their required age, harvest them and then take the timber to the mill. A chain of people is required to operate woodyards, the pulp mill, paper machines, and beyond, when paper, packaging paper or tissue is converted into the products we buy at the supermarket or have delivered to our door.

Considering that planted forests are, in essence, crops, businesses going paperless is similar to limiting our consumption of carrots or cabbage and ultimately not supporting farmers and their jobs by consuming their produce.

The words of Greenpeace co-founder Dr Patrick Moore back this up: “We should be growing more trees and using more wood. If [those] landowners had no market for wood, they would clear the forest away and grow something else they could make money from instead. When you go into a lumber (wood) yard, you are given the impression that by buying wood you are causing the forest to be lost, when in fact what you are doing is sending a signal into the market to plant more trees.”

Circular economies

In addition to growing trees and making paper products, the recovery of paper and other materials for recycling serves as a means of income generation for informal waste collectors and small recycling businesses.

Moreover, with much of the forestry-owned land and paper mills situated in rural or semi-rural areas, the forestry and forest products sector contribute to basic infrastructure, including roads, clinics, and schools, and investments in community development and eco-tourism.

This all represents an investment in people, communities and our country, not least of which an investment in the future as we tackle the effects of climate change. So, think again about that little blurb at the bottom of your email. Consider the environment and the economy, before you go paperless.

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