Water waste and the paper industry: What makes pulp paper production such thirsty business?

Water – it’s essential for our survival: to keep hydrated, grow food, wash. And it’s a key element in the production of wood pulp paper.

This is the second in a series of blogs looking at the impact of the paper industry on our environment. Last time we looked at deforestation and rebalancing our friendship with trees; the main ingredient of wood pulp paper. This time, we’re focusing on the use of water in paper production: how much is used? Why is it such a big deal, anyway? And are there any alternatives?

 

How much water is used to produce a piece of paper?

Even the crispest piece of A4 pulp paper has swallowed up to 20 litres of water during its production. The pulp and paper industry uses a huge amount of freshwater – in some nations an incredible 10% of all freshwater goes to make paper [1]. Which may be slightly less surprising when we consider that, for example, in Western Europe each inhabitant uses an average of 147 kg of paper per year [2]. That’s about the same weight as an adult giant panda, which is a lot, as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried lifting one. And water is used in every step of production – lots of paper = lots of water.

 

What makes producing paper such a thirsty business?

As mentioned above, water is used in all the major processes involved in paper making. Let’s have a look at three of the big ones to give us a better idea of where this drain on resources comes in:

To grow trees
Trees drink water. And when it comes to growing enough trees to fulfil our pulp paper desires, those in the paper-making business often opt for the quickest growing species. That’s why Eucalyptus plantations (responsible for devastating forest fires in Portugal) are so common – they grow quickly. To do so, they also consume vast amounts of water. Much more than other species, which leads to robbing nearby streams and agricultural land from their water supplies. In Brazil, more than 7.5 million hectares of eucalyptus grows [3] – that’s the equivalent to nearly two times the size of the Netherlands. So you can start to see why wood pulp paper production is such a thirsty business.

To make pulp
Once the trees have been stripped of their bark and made into wood chips, they are boiled in a watery-chemical solution and turned it into a pulpy soup.

To bleach paper
Because apparently the world needs white paper, paper makers mix vast quantities of water with bleach to turn the naturally brown pulp into a bright-white substance. Kind on the eye, terrible for the environment. The bleaching process is the most water-intense part of the production process in pulp paper mills.

 

Pulp paper production and human rights

The water used in paper production comes largely from natural rivers and lakes nearby paper mills, which belongs to everyone. This brings us to something else alarming about the paper industry’s water use: its impact on the people who live nearby the factories making this paper.

Apart from land rights struggles caused by paper companies taking over land where indigenous peoples have traditionally lived for centuries, there are also many cases in which fresh water supplies are diverted away from local communities to be used in paper mills. This means less water, or contaminated water, for drinking, cooking and washing, and subsequently leads to conflict over this much sought after resource.

Below is just one of several troubling case studies of human rights violations found in the 2018 Report on the State of the Global Paper Industry (p28-29):

“In Chile pulp and paper companies are involved in bitter conflicts with indigenous and traditional people who claim the land that these companies obtained from the government during the military dictatorship of Pinochet. After democracy returned in 1990, the Mapuche started to reclaim their rights, which include the recognition of their cultural identity, the demand for land, and the demand for autonomy.

Apart from the land conflicts, there are also conflicts in Chile due to water shortage caused by the plantations, the pollution caused by the mills, and the huge plantation fires that Chile has suffered in recent years.

Over the years, the conflict has intensified, with groups that claim to represent the Mapuche resorting to more violent protests, which include the burning of timber trucks. The government has responded with anti-terrorist legislation against the Mapuche and by militarising certain areas, to protect the companies. Apart from the land conflicts, there are also conflicts in Chile due to water shortage caused by the plantations, the pollution caused by the mills, and the huge plantation fires that Chile has suffered in recent years.”

 

But surely the pulp paper industry wants to do better? Surely it doesn’t want to use up so much of our natural resources, causing irreparable environmental damage?

It’s true – at least our research suggests it is – that a piece of A4 paper that’s consumed 20 litres of water before it reaches you is the worse case scenario. The average amount of water used to make one piece of A4 paper is more like 10 litres. That’s still a lot. But, you know, less than 20 litres.

Some of the world’s thousands of paper mills are becoming more aware of their impact on the environment and acting to improve their processes to reduce waste. Some reuse water throughout the various stages of the paper-making process, sometimes returning up to 90% back into the water system once they’ve finished with it. Sometimes, some paper mills, in some countries do this. But by no means all.

The paper industry has a lot to do if it’s going to convince us that it is no longer having a devastating impact on the environment.

The origin of so much of the crisp white paper carefully bound inside beautiful notebook covers, or tightly packed inside a packet of printer paper, remains largely mysterious. What we’re trying to say is, the paper industry has a lot to do if it’s going to convince us, here at Paper on the Rocks, that it is no longer having a devastating impact on the environment.

The amount of paper being produced is increasing and recently exceeded 400 million tonnes per year.

The amount of paper being produced is increasing and recently exceeded 400 million tonnes per year [4]. So even if water wastage is being reduced by 50% in an environmentally conscious mill, if twice the amount is being produced, we’re back to the beginning in terms of environmental impact. (Not to mention that twice the number of trees will need to be cut down… you can read more on deforestation and the paper industry here.)

 

Is there a way to make paper without water?

Well, yes… funny you should ask. The stone paper in our Rockbooks is produced using exactly no water. Not a drop. (Apart from maybe if someone working at the plant gets thirsty and needs a drink, or washes their hands when they’ve finished their shift.)

So there you have it – there’s an alternative staring us right in the face. It’s time to change our behaviour, recognise that we can question the traditionally, environmentally harmful, production of goods.

 

What can you do about it?

If your workplace (or household) uses a lot of paper, consider replacing your (quite frankly wasteful) pulp paper notebook habits with cleaner, stone paper ones.

  1. Tell whoever buys paper for your printer at home or work about Paperwise – they make printer paper from agricultural waste. This requires no deforestation and a lot less water is used in the production, as this paper isn’t bleached.
  2. You can also tell your office manager, or whoever orders in stationery, about Paper on the Rocks’ notebooks. Let them know that the production of stone paper uses no water and produces much less carbon, energy and waste. It also doesn’t require deforestation, unlike its virgin pulp paper cousin-in-law.

This last part might feel a bit like a sales pitch. Yes, we want you to buy our notebooks. But we hope it is clear to you why we’d like you to buy them: We want to see widespread behavioural change. We have an opportunity to vastly reduce deforestation and increase biodiversity by using an alternative product, and we’d love for you to be a part of the solution.

 

Further reading about human rights and the paper industry:

Beyond Paper Promises: Assessing the Impacts of Corporate Pulp and Paper Commitments on Forests and Frontline Communities by Rainforest Action Network (RAN)

 

References:

[1, 2, 3] p30, p9, p28 Report on the State of the Global Paper Industry – Environmental Paper Network (2018)

[4] p51 The State of the World’s Forests 2018 – The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

 

Photo by Giga Khurtsilava on Unsplash

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