Few other materials are a better fit for the circular economy – a principle that propels the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa
Despite paper’s long and fascinating history, a narrative that often goes untold is how paper stores carbon, making paper and the wood it comes from good for the planet. ‘To understand why paper and wood products have a lower carbon footprint, we can borrow from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s assertion that trees don’t grow from the ground, they grow from the air,’ says Jane Molony, executive director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA).
Many of us first learnt 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.
‘In South Africa, trees can be divided into two groups – indigenous trees in natural forests and commercially but sustainably farmed trees in plantations,’ says Molony. ‘The latter were introduced some 100 years ago to protect natural forests, by providing farmed wood for timber and paper products.’
Plantation trees are crops that are 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 timber construction or for paper, packaging and tissue – the carbon remains locked up in the wood fibres and stays there for the life cycle of those products. It’s just one of the reasons paper recycling is important – it keeps the carbon locked up longer. The sector invests in research and innovation to unlock the versatility of trees: using dissolving wood pulp as a binder in pharmaceuticals and an emulsifier and stabiliser in foods, to making textiles, sponges and cellphone screens.
Growing more trees and creating everyday things and innovative solutions from wood means forest products make our lives better, our jobs easier and our world more sustainable.