Peeking into Sustainable Paper and Packaging

by Silvia Schmid*


To some, the idea of a sustainable paper and packaging company can produce an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, perhaps conjuring up imagery of clear cutting and Styrofoam. Yet as much as we would like to think, do not print emails and traveling mugs are hardly going to replace the paper and packaging products that consumers want, firms demand, and on which the economy relies every day. Although this doesn’t mean that there is nothing being done. There are plenty of efforts to nudge consumer behavior toward the more sustainable, and, as attendees at a recent lecture at Wharton found out, the paper and packaging industry itself certainly considers issues of sustainability.

The Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (Wharton IGEL) invited David Kiser, Ph.D., Vice President, Environment, Health, Safety, and Sustainability at International Paper (IP) and a member of the IGEL Corporate Advisory Board, to speak about the company’s sustainability initiatives. The lecture was cosponsored by the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kiser7David Kiser, Ph.D., Vice President, Environment, Health, Safety, and Sustainability at International Paper.

As a vertically integrated company, IP has direct control over most of its production, and is aware of the large manufacturing footprint of its paper mills. IP has set 12 voluntary goals for reducing its environmental impact that the company plans to achieve by 2020. Among the notable environmental issues associated with the paper and packaging industry, the presentation covered sustainable forestry, paper certifications and recycling.

Dr. Kiser pointed out that total forested area has remained surprisingly steady in North America since the 1900s as a result of better forest stewardship stemming from the prevalence of conservation efforts and an improved understanding of forest management. However, encroaching agriculture, grazing, mining and development remains a threat to forestland in other parts of the world. This makes forest certification an essential component of resource conservation.

After selling 85 percent of its forestland in 2006, IP utilizes certification and chain-of-custody processes to keep an eye on production. A chain-of-custody certification –including forest management certification as well as fiber procurement certification– tracks the fiber lifecycle from forest to consumer. IP currently uses three main third party certification systems: the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), the Forest Stewardship Council™ (FSC®), and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®). In addition, the company employs a country-specific certification program in Brazil called Cerflor.

Unfortunately, certification is no panacea for sustainable resource management. For one, it remains difficult to ensure that non-certified paper does not mix in with certified supply during the supply chain. Moreover, there is a limited supply of sustainably managed and certified forestland for purchasing timber. And, while certification is a good first step, not all certification programs are of equal strength. At the moment, FSC is far stricter than the others. IP should continue to use its purchasing power to require more certified fiber from its suppliers, and increase its share of FSC certified paper.

Because shipping timber is expensive, supply is very regional, meaning that fiber is utilized near where it is produced. However, this is not true of recovered fiber, of which large quantities are shipped to China and other Asian markets that lack timber resources and rely heavily on recycled fiber imports.

Dr. Kiser also shed some light on the familiar argument of virgin vs. recycled fiber. Unlike aluminum, which can be recycled repeatedly without suffering a deterioration in quality, paper can only go through the process a limited number of times. According to Dr. Kiser, if we ceased production from virgin fiber today, paper supply would run out after about 18 months. Moreover, making 100% recycled paper is laborious and costly, and overcoming the challenge of conserving materials –which means thinner paper– while still maintaining the paper’s strength will require new product innovation.

At present, IP is exploring the potential of genetically engineered eucalyptus that can grow in the southeastern United States. Typical harvesting in the U.S. takes about fifteen years; however eucalyptus forests in Brazil require only seven years until they are ready for harvesting. This could provide a steady supply if new fertility technology can prevent the species from becoming invasive, and it could also be a significant resource for biomass and cellulosic ethanol energy production. Countries such as Israel, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and China are also experimenting with engineered eucalyptus.

Other sustainability initiatives target common areas of concern: IP partnered with Starbucks on the Cup-to-Cup pilot program, aimed at optimizing the recycling of used paper cups (Starbucks has the goal of ensuring that 100 percent of its cups are reusable or recyclable by 2015). While this is an admirable effort, collecting used cups remains problematic, not to mention that the energy and water-intensive recycling process hardly justifies the single-use serving cup. This effort must be combined with other incentives to change consumer behavior.

Dr. Kiser’s presentation centered on sustainable forestry, paper recycling, and the carbon footprint, but he did also point out that “water is the next carbon.”

Finally, Dr. Kiser argued that “a true belief in doing the right thing” must be “a main driver” within the company and higher management if serious progress in sustainability efforts is to be made. This doesn’t mean calling out competitors with worse environmental records; rather, the preferred way to move forward is to lead by example and encourage competitors to follow suit by sharing technology.

Click here to view the presentation.

*Silvia Schmid is the Communications Coordinator for Wharton IGEL and a graduate of the Master of Environmental Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania. Opinions represented in blog posts and research briefs represent the opinions of the authors only, not of Wharton, IGEL, or the University of Pennsylvania.

Images by Derick Olson, Penn Undergraduate ’15

One response to “Peeking into Sustainable Paper and Packaging

  1. The paper industry seems to be tons of potential for sustainability! Nice write-up!

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