Save the trees: recycle plastics!

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Deforestation is exacerbating the climate crisis

Rising paper consumption is accelerating deforestation

Packaging: paper’s carbon footprint is inferior to that of plastics

Increasing paper consumption worldwide – especially for the production of packaging – is boosting deforestation and increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It means the supposedly eco-friendly paper bag is proving to be a driver of climate change. Replacing plastic packaging with paper packaging is barking up the wrong tree.

Forests have a decisive influence on our planet’s climate. Wherever forests grow, they convert CO2 into biomass – about the same amount of carbon is tied up in living plants as in humus – and thus have a positive effect when it comes to global warming. The World Resources Institute estimates that the world’s forests currently absorb 30 per cent of all CO2 emissions. Conversely, around a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to deforestation and forest degradation. Experts agree unanimously that the increase in global warming compared with the pre-industrial age can only be restricted to two degrees Celsius if we succeed in stopping deforestation. That is why the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change includes a programme called REDD, which is aiming to put an end to deforestation and forest degradation in order to reduce CO2 emissions.

The destruction of forests is continuing

Deforestation is continuing unabated – with catastrophic consequences for global biodiversity. In 2018, 30 million hectares of forest were destroyed, an area the size of the United Kingdom and Ireland combined. A third of these were virgin forests, which are particularly effective in combating climate change by acting as long-term carbon sinks. Transforming forests into plantations that bind much less CO2 than species-rich forests is also fatal.

he reasons for deforestation are manifold. In the past, land consumption and slash-and-burn deforestation by the growing world population were considered the main causes of forest destruction. However, according to a research study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, industrial agriculture – especially soya production, cattle breeding and grazing – and the timber trade are now the main causes of forest destruction worldwide.

Paper consumption is accelerating the deforestation process

According to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about 40 per cent of the trees felled for industrial purposes are processed into paper products. This is because, despite digitisation, global paper consumption is constantly increasing – and with it the associated emissions of gases that are harmful to the environment: in 2018, the German paper industry alone generated 13.8 million tonnes of CO2 due to the use of fossil fuels in the manufacture of paper products. This was the result of an enquiry to the German government by Bettina Hoffmann, the environmental spokesperson for the Green Party in the Bundestag. In order to counteract this development, Hoffmann advocates a waste avoidance target enshrined in law that also includes paper and cardboard.

Paper packaging is fuelling global warming

In 2018, the global production of paper, board and cardboard amounted to around 420 million tonnes. While the demand for newsprint and printer paper is declining, that for paper, carton and cardboard packaging is increasing steadily and now accounts for around 55 per cent of the global consumption of paper. According to an analysis by the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA), this is primarily due to the growing volume of paper cups and plates for food to go, for packaging in the food sector and for parcels and packages in online retailing. Paper has a short lifespan: on average, half of all products are consumed within just two years. Disposing of them also contributes to global warming, as the CO2 that was once bound by the trees is released again when they are burned. But if they are left to rot, the biological decomposition process produces methane, whose contribution to the greenhouse effect is 25 times higher than that of CO2. “In order to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Convention, we must immediately abandon the use of wood or trees to produce packaging that quickly ends up as waste and press ahead instead with the protection of forests,” warns the coordinator of Environmental Paper Network International, an association of over a hundred environmental protection organisations.

Plastics can be part of the solution

There are three ways out of this impasse: avoid, recycle and replace. In the search for alternative packaging materials, plastics, which are frowned upon by many consumers, perform better than expected. It is true that plastics also consume energy, water and raw materials and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. However, in a direct comparison of the climate-damaging emissions generated by the extraction of raw materials, production and disposal of packaging, plastic bags showed a much more favourable carbon footprint than paper bags. A series of scientific studies from Scotland, France and the USA came to the conclusion that – depending on the study – common paper shopping bags generate between two and 3.3 times more CO2 equivalents over their entire life cycle than conventional plastic bags made of polyethylene.

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