This Earth Day, take a fresh look at paper

This article is sponsored by Rolland Paper.

As Earth Day 2018 approaches, many of us take a step back to reflect on the value of the environment that supports us, and how best we can protect it. When it comes to the modern office, many people think going paperless is one way to reduce their environmental impact. On closer examination, though, paperless is not necessarily greener, and a careful approach to paper sourcing can be better for our one and only planet.

Rolland is a paper company that puts a lot of thought into maintaining the smallest possible environmental footprint. We manufacture commercial paper products with up to 100 percent recycled content, and we pride ourselves on delivering the same or better quality that people have come to expect from paper made from virgin fibers. Better still, we use renewable energy — primarily biogas — to power our manufacturing processes, and remove ink from our recycled fibers without chlorine.

The impact of information storage

But how can paper, even recycled paper, be better than a paperless office? Two Sides, an organization that provides information about print media’s sustainability, offers some food for thought on this topic. In particular, it raises the poorly understood environmental impact of electronic communications and archiving. All of the information people don’t print on paper gets stored in data centers, which consume significant amounts of energy, often from fossil fuels.

  • The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimated (PDF) in 2013 that small network equipment in America’s homes consumed more than $1 billion worth of electricity in 2012, equivalent to the output of three large coal-fired power plants. This resulted in 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to the annual tailpipe emissions of 1.1 million vehicles.
  • The NRDC also found (PDF) in a 2014 study that data centers are one of the largest and fastest growing consumers of electricity in the United States. In 2013, U.S. data centers consumed an estimated 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity — enough electricity to power all the households in New York City twice over — and are on track to reach 140 billion kilowatt-hours by 2020.
  • Data centers’ environmental impact goes beyond greenhouse gas emissions, with things such as battery waste, coolant and its impact on the ozone layer and toxic cleaning materials adding to the mix.

A related concern is the environmental impact of electronic waste, known as e-waste. Discarded components of the world’s digital communications infrastructure are polluting drinking water and harming ecosystems around the world. Most e-waste ends up in landfills, where toxic metals leach into the environment.

The many lives of a fiber

It’s impossible to trace a wood fiber through its journey around the world, for obvious reasons. That said, it is estimated that a paper fiber can be recycled seven times. At Rolland, we conduct and fully publish a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to gauge the environmental footprint of our papers. We compare favorably not only to virgin paper manufacturers — recycled fibers don’t contribute to deforestation, after all — but also to other recycled paper manufacturers. This is because other paper manufacturing facilities are generally powered by coal and natural gas, whereas at Rolland we use an innovative approach that sources 93 percent of our thermal energy from renewables.

Our LCA includes additional elements, such as how our paper production affects human health, water availability and quality, biodiversity and more. By providing that level of detail, we hope to make it possible for our customers to have a clear understanding of how recycled paper products can fit into a broader environmental management program. As the paper company with the lowest environmental footprint, we go above and beyond to provide transparency in reporting, and we are committed to being an ecological leader in the pulp and paper industry and a good supply chain partner to our customers.

At Rolland, we try to make it as easy as possible to learn about and use our sustainable, recycled paper products. We have tools on our website to allow customers to compare papers, order samples and even calculate the environmental impact of our products for those who need hard numbers.

As the world digitizes, the value of email and remote data storage is indisputable. But going paperless comes with important ecological costs, and is not the answer for those seeking to lessen their impact on the environment. High-quality, recycled paper can and should be a part of any plan to take better care of the only Earth we have.