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Combating Electronic Communications

It is often assumed that use of paper grades intended for printing, particularly newsprint, has been dropping for some years in the developed world, due to replacement by electronic communication, mostly over the Internet. This has led to numerous statements by paper industry representatives and promoters criticizing electronic communications.

There is lots of conflicting information out there.

The good news is that the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) reported in May that shipments of printing and writing grades have been increasing each of the past six years. Also, Australasian paper companies recently reported increased consumption of communications grades over the past few years.

However, we have all noticed the shutdown of numerous fine paper and newsprint machines, and even complete mills, over the past few years. Canada has been harder hit than the United States, largely because of the country’s high newsprint production and the recent increases in the value of the Canadian dollar relative to the U.S. dollar and the euro.

One recent example of decline in Canada was a report in the Montreal Gazette on 05 June that routine annual delivery of the white pages (residential directory) telephone book would cease in all major Canadian cities, reducing paper consumption by about 3500 tons per year. It also was mentioned that the Yellow Pages Group, which distributes most Canadian phone books, had previously reduced delivery frequency from annual to biannual in trial cities, offering to provide directories to anyone who requested one. Less than 1% of subscribers made such requests. This augurs poorly for on-going demand for paper for phone books.

The yellow pages (business directory) telephone books continue to be distributed, presumably because they bring advertising revenue. Even that is liable to decline, as advertisers realize that increasing numbers of people turn to Google or other search engines to find products, because the up and coming generations find it much easier to walk their fingers over a keyboard than the yellow pages.

There have been numerous attempts by paper industry and printing organizations to combat the move to electronic reading, although I have been unable to find any discussion of the issue on AF&PA or Forest Products Association of Canada Web sites.

Unfortunately, most “pro-paper” publications that I see are laced with wildly erroneous data, which is just as bad as many of the erroneous allegations on pollution by mills that are made by the less competent of the environmental advocacy groups. When pulp and paper promotional campaigns publish misleading data on even a few points, they destroy the credibility of the document they are in, and weaken the whole industry’s credibility in the eyes of politicians and the public.

Two Sides (www.twosides.info), an industry-supported organization, has countered organizations that append notices to their emails suggesting the readers do not print the document. Unfortunately their standard letter has been stating that by 2020 half the energy consumed in the United Kingdom will be by PCs and servers, thus suggesting that reading on screen leads to gross greenhouse gas emissions. I questioned them on this, and after some research they agreed that the source they had used in good faith (the BBC, referring in turn to Deutche Bank research) was wrong.

"Paper – part of every day," a recent and generally well written Australasian Paper Industry Association publication to promote paper (available at www.papereveryday.com.au/index.php) states that computers generate 226 grams CO2 emission per hour used. I measured power consumptions by my laptop and desktop computers, and concluded that actual greenhouse gas generation is probably about 50 g CO2/hour.

A study commissioned by the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) concluded that the carbon footprint of reading a typical email is about 5 grams CO2 emission, whereas a letter by mail generates about 20-25 grams CO2.

All this begs the question as to whether the industry should be actively campaigning to persuade people to use print media instead of electronic. I think not, since the data are against paper use, and the above examples show that such campaigns are liable to reduce industry credibility.

Remember, too, that the pulp, paper, and printing industries combined generate only about 1% of world greenhouse gas emissions.

The pulp and paper industry has a positive story to tell on sustainability, but this message is not well known, although the industry and its organizations have lots of good data. The positive information can be used, for example, to persuade people to choose paper rather than plastic for many uses, particularly packaging and “use once” products such as fast-food coffee cups.

The industry also has been spectacularly successful in reducing pollution by mills, to the point that with a few (sometimes ugly) exceptions, the impact of pulp and paper mills on receiving waters and the atmosphere ranges from unmeasurable to trivial. Unfortunately, the public image of mills is still bad. This is not a current problem, but will become one when companies wish permits to expand, modernize, or build new mills. However, changes in public image take time. We should be willing to admit that the mills of 40 years ago were often disgusting, while demonstrating the improvements that the industry has made. Industry publications related to the environment seem to be heavily focused on greenhouse gas emissions. We have a good story to tell in this respect, but should not forget the public’s interest in local air and water pollution.

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