The Carbon Story of Paper
A lesser known fact about the world’s oldest technology
Paper has a fascinating history. Developed centuries ago, it has been through the mill – literally and figuratively – in terms of what it’s made from. It also has many interesting side stories, one being how it is made today and how it actually stores carbon.
What many people don’t realise, is that 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 lifecycle of those products. It’s another reason why recycling is important – it keeps the carbon locked up even longer.
To understand why paper and wood products are vital to 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.
Many of us first learned 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, incidentally, 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 could be divided into two groups – indigenous trees in natural forests and commercially and sustainably farmed trees in plantations. The latter were introduced some 100 years ago to protect natural forests, by providing wood for productive purposes.
The best part? Not only do paper and other wood products from sustainable products keep carbon locked up as long as they’re around, but new trees are planted in the place of harvested trees, keeping the carbon cycle going and making paper and wood the Ultimate Renewable™.