Facts About Paper: How Paper Affects the Environment

25th Oct 2019

Facts About Paper: How Paper Affects the Environment

What does paper cost? About a penny per sheet, give or take.

But what is the environmental cost of paper use and production? What impact has the paper consumption on the environment we live in?

Sadly, the environment pays the highest price of all for our love affair with paper.

Let’s see what the numbers say about this.


General Stats and Facts About Paper (Consumption & Production)

  • Global paper use has increased by 400% in the last 40 years.
  • Average person in the US uses more than 700 pounds of paper every year. That’s the highest paper usage figure per capita worldwide.
  • In the last 20 years, the usage of paper products in the US reached 208 million tons (up from 92 million), which is a growth of 126%.
  • This is how per capita paper consumption (by region) looked on the World map not so long ago, in 2016:

Source: EPN

  • America uses 30% of the global paper supply, although we account for only 5% of the world’s population.
  • To meet the global demand paper production volumes currently exceed 300 million metric tons per year.
  • This number is over 400 million when we look at the combined paper and cardboard data:

Global Paper and Cardboard Production Volumes 2007 - 2017 (in million metric tons)

Source: Statista

  • Interestingly, printing is not the main paper consumption category. Packaging is:

Global paper consumption (by paper category, in tonnes).

  • Production volumes when grouped by type look similar to the graph on consumption above:

Paper production volumes from 2007 to 2017 by type (Global production in 1,000 metric tons)

Source: Statista

  • Likewise, the pulp and paper industry is the fifth largest consumer of energy, accounting for 4% of all the world’s energy use.
  • Today, approximately 50% of the world’s industrial logging goes into making paper.
  • We also recycle a lot. Papermakers in the US every day recycle enough paper to fill a fifteen mile long train of boxcars.
  • 44.2 million tons of paper/paperboard were recycled in 2017 in the US. This means a recycling rate of 65.9%, which is the highest figure among all materials in municipal solid waste.
  • 79% of the paper and cardboard used in the UK was recycled in 2017.
  • Current paper recycling rate in the EU is 71.5%. Target rate for 2020 is 74%.

Paper in Business

  • Most of the businesses are still primarily paper-dependent. The fire or flood that results in a massive loss of paper-based documentation would make more than 70% of today’s businesses fail in just three weeks.
  • Currently, companies in the US spend over 120 billion dollars per year on printed forms.
  • Most of these print forms become outdated in just three months.
  • In general, approximately 45% (that’s almost half!) of all pages printed in the offices eventually end up in the trash.
  • Moreover, on average companies completely lose around 7.5% of all their paper documentation.
  • And then they spend around $122 for finding the lost document.
  • On average companies in the US spend around 4 weeks every year trying to find lost documents.  
  • Nevertheless, there are now more than 4 trillion paper documents in the US.
  • We also copy a lot: a typical document gets copied 9-11 times.
  • Altogether paper consumption in business keeps growing. Paper use in an average business grows by 22% a year, meaning paper costs double every 3.3 years.
  • The average office worker in the US goes through roughly 10,000 sheets of paper each year.
  • The maintenance of every 12 filing cabinets usually requires an additional employee.
  • Employees spend 30-40% of their time looking for information locked in email and filing cabinets – average filing expenses are about $20 per month.
  • The capacity of a four-drawer filing cabinet is approximately 11,000 documents. It also uses 9 square feet of space, and costs about $1,500 per year.
  • It’s estimated that each misfiled document in a filing cabinet costs a company $125. A lost document costs between $350-700. Large companies can lose a document every 12 seconds!

Effects of Paper Consumption on the Environment

  • Pulp and paper is the third-largest air, water, and land polluter among all industries in both Canada and the US. The pulp and paper industry releases over 100 million kilograms of toxic pollution every year.
  • The U.S. cuts down approximately 68 million trees each year to produce paper products.
  • On average Americans use 7 trees per person a year in paper, wood, and other products made from trees. This amounts to approximately 2 billion trees per year!
  • An estimated 18 million acres of forest are lost each year to paper production. That’s the equivalent of 20 football fields every minute.
  • To meet the yearly paper demand in the UK, you need a forest the size of the whole Wales!
  • Global paper towels usage transforms into 254 millions of trash every single year (3,000 tons of waste daily which is the equivalent of 51,000 trees cut). Just three saved paper towel rolls per household in the US each year could lead to 120,000 tons less waste and save $4.1 million in waste processing costs. 
  • Paper constitutes close to 26% (up from 16% or 26 million tons in 2009) of municipal solid waste in U.S. landfills.

Total MSW Generated by Material in the US (262.43 million tons)

Source: EPA

  • The share of the paper in municipal solid waste by weight is 35%.
  • And on a global scale the share of paper and cardboard in global waste composition is 17%:

Global Waste Composition (by category percentage)


Source: World Bank


What we can do about the negative effects of paper?

Here are the main things we can do to mitigate the negative effect of paper consumption:

  1. Use less paper. Don’t use paper when it is not necessary.
  2. Reuse paper when possible.
  3. Recycle and try to use recycled paper whenever possible.
  4. Switch to eco-friendly paper alternatives whenever possible.
  5. Better forest management

Let’s take a closer look at those things.

Use Less Paper

Probably the best way to prevent the negative effects of paper consumption over the environment is to use less paper. This however does not mean that you need to completely stop using paper (that would probably be a good thing, but not always possible).

Here are some smart things you can do:

  • If your business produces a lot of documents you would benefit from using a software-based Document Management System. You’ll save a bunch on paper cost, too!
  • Print on both sides of the paper (duplex printing) when printing on one side is not necessary. This is a simple way of reducing paper usage (and costs) by 50%.
  • Use thin paper. This can help to save up to 20% of paper both in usage and cost.
  • Instead of taking paper notes, try a white board.
  • Think before you print. Do you really need to print this? Do you need to print the whole document, or could you get by with only a page or two?
  • Check your document carefully for errors before printing. Re-printing wastes paper and money.
  • Use cloth napkins instead of paper.
  • Use rags instead of paper towels.

Reuse Paper

There are hundreds if not thousands of ways to reuse paper like crafting with old paper, using old paper (instead of a new one) for your home or office needs when possible and other similar things.

The main thing to remember here is to keep the paper you do not need anymore and use it as needed for different purposes. This will help you to avoid using new paper everytime you need to do something with paper.

Use Recycled Paper

Consider using recycled printer paper. Your prints may not look as sharp, but you’ll save some trees.

Here is how using recycled paper can help the environment:

  • Recycled paper production results in 40% fewer greenhouse gases.

Moving one million tons of virgin fiber paper to recycled paper in the magazine industry is the equivalent of taking 248,000 cars off the road for an entire year.

  • Recycled paper requires 26% less energy to produce.

Moving one million tons of virgin fiber paper to recycled paper in the magazine industry is the equivalent of powering 216,000 homes with electricity for an entire year.

  • Production of the recycled paper creates 43% less waste water.

Moving one million tons of virgin fiber paper to recycled paper in the magazine industry is the equivalent of filling over 15,000 swimming pools.

  • On average the recycled newspaper comes back as a newspaper again in just 7 days.
  • Recycled paper production leads to 73% less air pollution compared to standard paper production.
  • Every tonne of recycled paper usually saves enough energy to power a house for a whole year!

Paper Alternatives

Want to help the environment? Use eco-friendly paper alternatives!

While still relatively rare, treeless paper is growing in popularity. While many companies in India and China produce dead-tree alternatives, you’ll need to hunt around to find suppliers in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

  • There’s a place in Thailand where you can get paper made from elephant dung! Find out more at PooPooPaper.com.
  • TreeZero makes sheets of paper from sugarcane waste fiber.
  • Paper companies already produce eco-friendly sheets made from kenaf, bamboo, cotton, and other plants. There is also a “stone paper” made from calcium carbonate bonded with high-density polyethylene, for use in stationary, books, posters, and packaging.
  • Japanese manufacturer Teijin has developed a waterproof paper made from recycled plastic.
  • Specialty producers can also make paper from mango leaves, the waste bark of a banana tree, straw, coconut, hemp, and jute.

While none of the above specialty papers have made it to cost-effective mainstream use, they could if the demand were there. So, save a tree and use treeless paper!

Large-scale solutions

One more solution to paper waste lies in sustainable forest management.

For example, plant four fast-growing trees for every one forested. In Canada, about 21% of the trees cut down are used to make paper and cardboard. In the United States, that number is closer to 35%. (Sadly, as we mentioned above, paper and cardboard make up 26% of landfill waste in America.)

But, through proper sustainable forest and logging management, the environmental threat of deforestation can be greatly reduced.