By Luisa Colasimone, Coordinator, Environmental Paper Network International
I would have never imagined that a pandemic would reveal the difficulties of reconciling my love of pets with my love for forests.
As the happy roommate of three large size dogs and a cat with the appetite of a tiger, in March 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic caught me off guard. I live in Portugal where authorities quickly agreed a drastic lockdown to cut contamination: we were not allowed out, could only purchase non-essential supplies in small quantities, and had to stay in our freguesia or local area.
That’s when my love-hate relation with Amazon and other online suppliers reached new heights. In addition to Kindle book orders, which cost a fortune but don’t chop down trees, I had to secure a reliable long-term source of special food for the hairy companions - luckily my human partner and I could rely on local supplies.
The first order I received was a shock: 15kg of dog food came in big bags, the cat’s cans came in a box, surrounded by plastic - and they all arrived in three separate cardboard boxes.
This was not a sustainable solution.
Nor was “how do I reduce my packaging” on Amazons’ frequently asked questions list. The next blow came when my organic vegetables supplier announced that “to limit the risks of spreading the virus”, they would stop delivering in reusable wooden boxes and move instead to single-use cardboard.
I put the veggie supplier on hold and found an environmentally-friendly animal food producer, whose packaging was better – though not perfect…
From ever-lasting to mountains of disposable
But it should never be up to individual consumers to navigate a minefield of ethical choices, we need society-wide sustainable deliveries that can continue regardless of developments like COVID-19. We need an end to powerful single-use product companies who saw the pandemic as a chance to increase their sales and revenues.
Until the 1950s, most products were built to last, but as technology progressed, we focussed on producing low-cost disposable products en masse, with no regard for the mountains of waste and devastated landscapes. According to the World Bank, we produce two billion tonnes of waste each year and this is expected to increase by 70 per cent by 2050. In terms of packaging waste, Europe generated over 76 million tonnes in 2017 and for the same year, the US produced 81 million tonnes. When the figures for 2020 come out, I fear we’ll see that lockdowns and online shopping have pushed packaging waste even higher.
While the polluting effects of plastic production and disposal are relatively well-known, the life cycle of paper-based products can be similarly devastating, yet it is often under-estimated.
Each year, three billion trees are cut down to make paper packaging, roughly an area the size of the United Kingdom, and this is projected to increase by 20 per cent over the next five years. The paper industry is responsible for dispossessing Indigenous Peoples and local communities, clearcutting their forests and converting them to plantations which are far less able to remove and store carbon from the atmosphere. Paper manufacturing is also chemically and energy-intensive, and requires large amounts of water.
It is estimated that replacing just 5 per cent of plastic with paper would consume an additional 1.5 million tonnes of paper annually. The vast majority of carbon in paper ends up in the atmosphere within 2-3 years. If plastic packaging simply becomes paper and cardboard packaging, this will destroy our forests and exacerbate the climate crisis.
Working together towards solutions
The Environmental Paper Network (EPN) is one of 188 organisations calling on governments, businesses, investors, non-profit organisations, and civil society to work together and reject single-use products. Priority should be given to reusable options, followed by recyclable, and compostable ones, and all should be made with the lowest possible environmental and social footprint.
Today is #WorldRefillDay when we are encouraged to start using the many solutions that already exist: reuse and refill systems; 100 per cent recycled and recyclable products fed back into a circular system; materials that don’t rely on fossil fuels or tree-based feedstocks, and smart designs to reduce and even remove packaging entirely.
Paper is an extremely versatile support for learning and for culture, but because of its environmental impacts it should be used wisely and equally - not for single-use products. A list of actions to support wide-scale systems change on single-use can be found here.
What can you do? Join EPN and endorse the Global Paper Vision
In a non-pandemic year, this week would see forest activists from across Europe converging for the Forest Movement Europe meeting, to agree strategies and priorities for the next year. Many of these people come from NGOs that have signed the Global Paper Vision. These organisations seek a world where consumption patterns meet the needs of all people while eliminating waste and overconsumption. A world where paper production is conflict-free and fair, and water is as clean after paper production as before, producing zero waste and close to zero emissions.
But paper is often the forgotten commodity and so we need champions within forest NGOs, people willing to ensure paper and packaging reduction remains on the agenda. We also need active members of the EPN network, to ensure that the 140 organisations don’t just sign the Vision, but also share their organisation’s efforts to end paper’s destructive footprint.