Jane Molony, executive director of PAMSA, on how paper and its 
by-products are a significant contributor to the circular economy

Q: Many myths prevail around the forestry and paper sector. How does the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA) debunk those?
PAMSA is very active, engaging constantly with media, businesses and consumers to disprove myths. One example is that ‘paper-making causes deforestation or kills trees’. Yet paper is a renewable resource made from sustainably farmed trees and recycled paper. Trees, such as eucalyptus and pine, are planted, harvested and replanted in rotation. Only 6% of the total plantation area is harvested annually, thus there is always stock maturing every year, and new saplings planted. Another myth is that ‘going paperless is better for the environment’. This, again, doesn’t account for the fact that paper is a renewable resource. Most electronic devices require energy to function and, in SA, that energy is predominately coal-fired. Now weigh the difference between printing a large document and referring to it – versus opening it on your computer – any number of times.

Q: How does paper and its usages play into the circular economy?
Forestry and paper play a vital role in carbon sequestration and storage. As trees grow they absorb CO2 and store carbon. When trees are harvested, carbon remains locked up, whether the tree is made into wood or paper products. This is why recycling is important; it keeps carbon locked up for longer. Beyond reusing paper fibres in recycling, mills also use by-products and process waste. Black liquor from wood cooking, for example, is used to power machinery. And paper sludge can be added to compost and used in brick-making, further contributing to circularity.

Q: How does sustainable paper production contribute to the green-economy transformation?
Sustainably produced wood fibre – and its by-products – is the ultimate renewable. It is made up of cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin and extracts such as waxes, fatty acids, resin acids and sugars, each with properties that make suitable ingredients for the production of countless products.

Lignosulphonates are extracted during the production of cellulose pulp with the use of sulphites. Acting as bonding and dispersing agents, they find function in construction by reducing the ratio of water required in cement. Lignosulphonates also alter the flow of concrete, retaining strength and reducing cost. In addition, they work well as a dust-control medium on roads and in mines.

Q: What are the current trends in sustainable timber harvesting?
Responsible forestry requires sustainable, efficient and effective practices with the lowest environmental impact that yield the greatest socio-economic benefits, while producing an array of versatile everyday items, such as sawn timber, pulp, paper, poles, mining timber, charcoal, matches and cellulose-based products.

Forestry goes beyond the planting and managing of timber plantations. It’s also about looking after the landscapes that timber plantations share with other animal and plant species, as well as the people and communities that the entire value chain touches. Our local forestry landscape is a tapestry of commercial tree farms and natural spaces of unplanted land to enhance and conserve biodiversity, grasslands, wetlands and indigenous forests. With some 80% of the country’s timber plantations certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, SA boasts the highest degree of forest certification in the world.

Q: Is paper still considered a popular choice as a communication medium?
Paper-based reading and learning is still king. Research has proven that we retain content better when we read it on paper, and shoppers still like to browse for specials in their weekly community paper. While print has declined, it is certainly not dead, but paper-makers have had to diversify to stay in business. This has come in the form of speciality packaging and innovative, functional bio-products from wood fibre.

Q: Is SA switching to paper as packaging material?
With a number of companies looking for alternatives to plastic, we are seeing some exciting transitions to paper-based packaging. An example is the recent move by Woolworths in switching to a cardboard base for its cherry-tomato punnets. Many other retailers are taking bold steps by no longer selling plastic shopping bags but, rather, paper bags. With online shopping on the increase, and the likes of Checkers’ Sixty60 entering into the market, paper is seemingly the preferred choice.

Q: How is technology shaping the use of paper?
If there is one industry that has had to deal with disruption, it is the forest-product and paper-making sector. It has caused and faced disruption for all 2 000 years of its history. The pulp and paper sector is one to watch as the world explores the benefits of the bio-economy. Paper-makers are no longer restricted to manufacturing printing paper and cardboard boxes, and can use their raw material and processes to develop solutions for the bio-economy. We challenge anyone to go paperless. You’ll be stumped within minutes of waking up. Toilet paper, the label on your coffee jar, the cereal box… They’re all made of paper.

By Kerry Dimmer
Image: Francesca Cockcroft

Article written by