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Our Carbon Footprint: How do paper products fit in?


A household carbon footprint refers to the overall amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated by all the energy and materials consumed by those who live in a home as they go about their daily lives. It is a common measure of the contribution of a single household to climate change.

Understanding your carbon footprint can show opportunities for decreasing your consumption of energy and materials, and in turn, reducing your production of carbon emissions.

By far, the largest source of human-induced carbon emissions is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, gasoline, diesel, and natural gas. In GHG inventory and carbon footprint studies, the use of fossil fuels is usually the cause of elevated GHG emissions.

The US Environmental Protection Agency suggests that the average American household produces 54,462 pounds of CO2 each year from transportation, electricity, heating, and waste production. The Cool Climate Network at UC Berkeley took a more thorough look at American households and also included air travel, food consumption, services (such as health care, education and entertainment), and goods (such as clothing and personal items) in the household footprint calculation. They came up with an average household footprint of 96,000 pounds (48 tons) of CO2 per year (Figure 1).

Carbon footprint of a typical US household: 48 tons per year.

So where does all this CO2 come from? The largest share comes from transportation and housing, which make up 57,600 pounds CO2—60 percent of the total. That means that driving our cars, heating and/or cooling our homes, and running appliances make up the major part of our household footprint. Food contributes another 15 percent, with much of that a result of the large amount of energy required to produce meat. Goods and services each contribute 12.5 percent, with entertainment, clothing, and health care being the main sources of CO2 in those categories.

Where might paper and print consumption fit in? The Cool Climate Network has a category called “office and reading” that includes paper as one component. The whole category represents about 400 pounds of CO2 annually, or 0.4 percent of total household CO2. Similar results were found in Finland, where 0.9 percent of the overall climate impacts of household consumption were attributed to printed products.6

Globally, the contribution of the pulp, paper and printing industries to the global greenhouse gas inventory is about 1 percent. In 2016, the pulp and paper industry in the US was responsible for generating 37.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) or only 0.5 percent of the total US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 6,546 million metric tons.

Overall, paper and print products appear to make up 1 percent or less of our human carbon footprint. As a comparison, the following numbers are reported for other sectors:

  • Transportation: 15 percent
  • Land use change (including agriculture and forest loss): 15 percent
  • Energy supply (including coal mining, fossil fuel extraction, refining and processing): 13 percent

The ICT sector (i.e., computing and digital communications and technologies) GHG contribution is expected to be at about 6 percent by 2020. In other words, the carbon footprint of the global digital movement is a more serious concern than paper-based communications.

What is the carbon footprint of paper products?
The carbon footprint of paper products is defined as GHG emissions emitted during the life-cycle of paper production, converting, or printing and distribution (from production of raw materials used in manufacture, to disposal of finished product, excluding emissions during use of the product).

Paper’s carbon footprint can also be divided into three basic elements: greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration, and avoided emissions. Each of these elements is influenced by important characteristics that make paper’s carbon footprint smaller than might be expected: it’s made from a renewable resource that stores carbon, it is recyclable, and it is manufactured using mostly renewable energy including biomass, biogas, and hydroelectricity.

Various calculations have been made to measure the carbon emissions of paper products throughout their life cycle. For example, the production, delivery, and disposal of a newspaper is said to generate about 0.49 pounds of CO2 and if you subscribe to a daily paper that works out to be 147 pounds of CO2 each year—roughly the equivalent of driving 186 miles. A National Geographic magazine generates 1.82 pounds of CO2 during its life cycle; If you get one each month, that is similar to driving 24 miles annually. Paper towels generate about 0.06 pounds CO2 each and even if you use 10 each day, in a year your paper towels would general 219 pounds of CO2, or the equivalent of driving 173 miles. Considering that the average American drives 13,476 miles each year, the amount of CO2 generated by paper products is relatively small.

Reducing the carbon footprint of paper products
A life cycle study of four types of North American paper grades (office paper, catalog, telephone directory, and magazine) showed that the largest portion of the carbon footprint came from the paper production stage (44-67 percent) and the smallest portion from transportation (1-2 percent) (Figure 2). The end-of-life stage (disposing of paper in landfill sites and its subsequent breakdown producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas) accounted for 19-38 percent of the total carbon footprint.

Distribution of carbon footprint for office paper. (AF&PA, 2012)

In the last two decades, the North American pulp and paper industry has made great strides in reducing its carbon footprint. Greenhouse gas emissions from the US pulp and paper industry dropped from 44.2 to 37.7 million metric tons CO2 equivalents (15 percent) between 2011 and 2016 due to improved energy efficiency and increased use of less carbon-intensive fossil fuels and carbon-neutral biomass-based energy sources.

In 2014, 67 percent of US pulp and paper mills’ energy needs were provided by renewable biomass and fuels. In Canada, bioenergy continues to increase its share of the energy mix, accounting for 56 percent of forest industry energy use in 2014, up from 49 percent in 2000 and 43 percent in 1990. Between 2004 and 2014, the Canadian forest industry reduced energy use by 35 percent and GHG emissions by 49 percent.

Given that paper products make up about 1 percent or less of our carbon footprint, going “paperless” will not achieve significant reductions in a person’s or household’s carbon footprint. Individuals would accomplish more by riding a bicycle or taking the bus (instead of driving), eating vegetarian (instead of meat) a couple of times per week, turning the thermostat down a few degrees in the winter and reducing air conditioning use in the summer, as a few ideas.

Final facts about climate change, forests, and paper:

  • Sustainably managed forests provide an important ecosystem service. Carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by trees and stored for a period before being returned to the atmosphere. Sequestered carbon is stored not only in trees but also in forest products [including paper] for periods ranging from days to centuries. Growing trees also releases oxygen into the atmosphere, thereby supporting life on our planet.

  • Terrestrial ecosystems store about 2,100 Gigatonnes of carbon in living organisms, litter and soil organic matter, which is almost three times that currently present in the atmosphere. Of this, boreal and temperate forests store about 700 Gt and tropical forests another 500 Gt.

  • In North America, paper is recycled more than any other commodity. Benefits include extending the wood fiber supply, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding methane emissions (released when paper decomposes in landfills or is incinerated), and saving landfill space.

About the author:
Phil Riebel is President of Two Sides North America, Inc. – an industry-funded non-profit that promotes the sustainability of paper and print, and also addresses inaccurate and misleading corporate environmental claims about print and paper in today’s marketplace. Phil also operates an environmental consulting business and owns and manages 200 acres of woodlands in the Northeast.

Household Carbon Footprint, EPA, 2017
Cool Climate Network, UC Berkley, 2011
Ecofys, World GHG Emissions Flow Chart, 2013
EPA, Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, 2017
This does not include sustainable managed forests used for forest products in North America. Sustainably managed forest are re-planted and remain forest areas – they are not defined as "deforestation" by the UN FAO.
Gartner, 2007
VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, 2010
VERSO and National Geographic, 2011
Climate Conservancy, 2008
U.S. Dept. of Transportation, 2016
American Forest & Paper Association, 2012
EPA, 2017
American Forest & Paper Association, 2017
Natural Resources Canada, 2017
American Forest & Paper Association, 2014
FAO, What is Soil Carbon Sequestration? 2004
Carlson et al., The Carbon the World Forgot, 2009
EPA, Paper Products, 2015


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