Paper has a fascinating history. Developed centuries ago, it has been through the mill – literally and figuratively – in terms of how it is made. There are also many interesting side stories: one that often goes untold is how paper actually stores carbon, making paper, and the wood it comes from, good for the planet.
“Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said that trees don’t grow from the ground, they grow from the air,” says Jane Molony, acting CEO of Fibre Circle, the producer responsibility organisation for the South African paper and paper packaging sector.
Many of us first learned about photosynthesis in primary school: how plants absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide (CO2) to make food. Trees take in CO2 from the air, and water from the ground — which also came from the air at some point — and convert this into growth (trunks, roots and leaves). Oxygen is returned to the atmosphere. This carbon cycle is why trees of all kinds are such a vital part of keeping our planet regulated, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change.
It is also why sustainably produced harvested wood products – like paper – are a greener option.
“In South Africa, trees can be divided into two groups — indigenous trees in natural forests and commercially farmed trees in plantations. The latter were introduced some 100 years ago to protect natural forests, by providing wood for industrial purposes such as building and fuel,” says Molony.
Essentially, plantation trees are crops; planted and replenished in rotations, with only 9% of the total tree count being harvested in any given year. This means that there are always trees growing, at different stages of maturity, and these trees are contributing to the carbon cycle, not to mention the economy and the livelihoods of thousands of people.
Even when planted trees are harvested for their wood — for construction or for paper, packaging and tissue — the carbon remains locked up in the wood fibres and stays there for the lifecycle of those products. It’s just one of the reasons using paper and recycling it is important — it keeps the carbon locked up longer.