Paper and printing: a vested interest in sustainability

My recent article about sustainability was framed by President Obama’s second inaugural address in Washington last month.

For the first time in his administration he has specifically highlighted the issue of climate change. The political divide is still so great in the US, and likely to remain so, that it is hard to see how much can be achieved in his next four years but nonetheless the issue is now back on the table.

The paper and printing industries, which have been fundamental to academic progress and progress in general since the invention of paper by the Chinese in 105 A.D. and the printing press by William Caxton in 1745, have a vested interest in sustainability. The massive and unrelenting growth of electronic communication has forced paper and print to confront decades old thinking and in the recognition that, like Canute, they cannot turn back the tide of electronic development, they are nonetheless trying to determine how best to swim in the rising water.

The direct connection between paper and print and the environment is of course the forests.

The massive decimation of forestland throughout the world and the devastation which is being caused by illegal logging, particularly in Southeast Asia [as China seeks not only to grow its own forests but to import timber from as far afield as Africa], has had the effect of destroying some of the greatest harbours for the sequestration of carbon dioxide on the planet.

However, in the United States this situation has not been repeated. The fact is that in the USA, three trees are planted for each one that is harvested and forest cover has now regained the levels that were last seen at the beginning of the last century. The problem though is that unless properly managed, plantation trees [trees grown specifically for industrial conversion] simply do not support the biodiversity found in “old-growth forests” or “endangered forests”.

The consequence of this is that informed, sustainably driven procurement of paper and consequently print [of which we will speak more later] mobile casinos is critically important not only to ensure that paper does not come from pulp produced in countries that practice illegal logging, but also that paper specified comes from responsibly managed forests that protect trees and the biodiversity that exists in those forests.

In South Africa, the paper supply market is dominated by industry giants Sappi and Mondi.

I know from my own experience that both companies have strong and committed principles of sustainability and as the owners of vast acres of forest land in the Republic they share responsibility to protect biodiversity and the environment to a greater degree than most. They extend their sustainability practices into other global markets and the record Sappi has achieved in the United States for example, is a very good one indeed. However this should not stop individual companies from making certain that the paper they buy is environmentally sustainable.

It is the responsibility of end-users of paper like Rhodes University, to make quite certain that key sustainable criteria drive their procurement of paper and that these criteria should include the sustainable practices of the companies which manufacture the pulp and paper and which distribute the paper to the markets as well as the sustainability of the product itself.

Here in the United States major universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown and others are very good in specifying the superficial sustainability driven criteria for the procurement of paper. However this stops at the sustainable values of the product itself and frequently ignores the practices of the companies i.e. the pulp Mills, the paper Mills and the paper distributors that are responsible for bringing the paper from the forest floor to the end-user.

I would like to talk about print and the growth of electronic communication in future articles. For the moment let me say that I find something fundamentally wrong in the suggestion that in countries like South Africa or the United States using less paper and substituting paper with electronics is somehow good for the environment and sustainability. That makes little sense to me.


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  1. At the moment we have radio adverts in SA encouraging us to support the printing industry on the basis that our paper is from sustainable sources. But this is only a fraction of the truth because hte more expensive paper is labled as a responsible mix of pulp from recycled paper and FSC certified paper from well managed forests. Well managed for the timber or the biodiversity. In the Southern Cape mountains alien trees that have escaped from presumably well managed plantations are outcompeting indigenous shrubs and trees and threatening biodiversity and water availability. If SAPPI / Mondi are committed to felling and curbing the spread of plantation escapees, they do not appear to be having much impact???

    Comment by Kim — 5 March 2013 @ 10:36 am

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