While we are on the fast track to becoming a “paperless” society in some ways, our consumption of paper is still considered an environmental issue. According to recent statistics, 408 million tons of paper were consumed globally, just in 2021. This includes not only average paper products but also paperboard and containerboard, along with a typical office or household (writing or printing) paper. Per other sources on the use of paper around the world, the U.S. consumes the most paper products, even though this use is said to be on the decline. In other parts of the world, however, the consumption of paper is on the rise. The environmental implications of this, of course, can feel staggering. First, it means the deforestation of many ecosystems and, thus, the loss of biodiversity and precious wildlife. Some sources claim that millions of hectares of forest are cleared every year— not just for paper production but for other purposes, too. Second: the harvesting and production of paper products create tons of needless pollution. We would think that in this digital age, paper consumption would become a problem of the past… …but it has not! How do we engage with solutions to this conundrum? Fortunately, many companies are moving forward with environmentally friendly paper alternatives. The best part: you can make a difference on your own, reducing worldwide paper consumption and environmental degradation, by looking for these products and choosing them over the standard paper.
What to look for:
Recycled waste paper products.
It’s better than standard paper and better than nothing. These products are still primarily sourced from fresh and direct clear-cutting of forests and natural areas— or environmentally costly tree farming solely dedicated to the production of wood pulp and paper materials. These are not my top choice, but they are the good alternative if nothing else is available.
Paper made from fiber-dense agricultural residues.
These paper products are made from waste products in the agricultural industry. These may include corn stalks, sugar cane bagasse, bamboo, wheat, straw, and more. They’re still not a perfect solution (especially considering the agricultural methods), but they are becoming more common.
Paper made from agricultural, industrial hemp (especially sustainably grown hemp) may be the most powerful player among standard paper alternatives. Hemp needs far fewer inputs to grow (thus fewer chemicals and fertilizers) and has a much shorter lifespan than trees, meaning lots less effort for far more product. Its fibers are stronger. Plus, paper made from the plant can be recycled many times over!
Papers made from invasive plant species.
This may be one of the cleverest approaches to paper alternatives, though companies are still finding the best invasive plant candidates for strong paper and bringing production up to scale. The benefits are obvious: it creates paper from plant species which are otherwise a nuisance. If energy costs are low during paper production, then the creation of this paper is easier on the planet. So far, invasive plant species like the Australian Common Reed, Japanese Knotweed, Giant Goldenrod, Eucalyptus, and more are top candidates for further production and development. On a closing note… …some companies are even effectively and successfully making alternative paper from elephant poop! While that may sound questionable (and cannot be brought up to the same scale as mainstream paper unless we figure out how to get more elephants)… …it’s a sure sign there is hope in human creativity and ingenuity in the face of some of our biggest environmental problems.