The proposed EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) risks replacing single-use plastic with single-use paper-based packaging, to the detriment of forests and local communities. In June 2023, Fern partners Okto Yugo Setiyo and Nurul Fitria, of the Indonesian civil society network Jikalahari, met with European Union policymakers to discuss the pulp industry’s harmful impacts in their home region, and how these effects are spreading. They underscored why paper-packaging is not a solution to the EU’s packaging and packaging waste problem – but curbing demand for pulp may be.
Demand for paper-based packaging is surging: paper and board packaging production rose 82.5 per cent between 1991 and 2018; more than 50 per cent of the paper the EU produces annually goes to packaging.
But EU forests are maxed out: Sweden must decrease harvesting to comply with Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) regulations; Portugal must halt the expansion of eucalyptus plantations; excessive harvests have turned Estonia’s and Finland’s land and forest sectors into net carbon emitters (FW 276); biomass madness is sending much of the EU’s remaining forests up in smoke (FW 284).
If throwaway plastic is replaced with throwaway paper, fresh fibres will need to come from elsewhere. Tropical countries, including Indonesia’s, will bear the burden of increased demand.
Indonesia’s powerful pulp industry includes giants Asia Pulp & Paper and Asia Pacific Resources International, who source fresh fibre from, among elsewhere, the Sumatran region of Riau, Jikalahari’s home.
Jikalahari’s trip to Brussels allowed them to share the real-life impacts of increased demand with Members of the European Parliament, in the context of the upcoming PPWR vote in September 2023.
Jikalahari unites local NGOs and student organisations aiming to halt forest degradation and deforestation in Riau, where pulp concessions cover 26 per cent of the land. To plant fast-growing, non-native acacia and eucalyptus, these concessions have drained and dried carbon-rich peatlands, resulting in significant carbon emissions and uncontrolled fires: smog from fires is one of the region’s most significant health hazards.
Forest inhabitants and wildlife are in harm’s way. Indigenous community members have been imprisoned and fined for cutting only a few trees on their traditional lands. With the loss of natural habitats, Sumatra tigers have attacked and killed 11 people in Riau over the last five years – nine of these deaths occurred within pulp concessions. Nurul Fitria said, “This is not just about business, about paper packaging that pretends to be ‘sustainable’. This is about real people and real animals. We fear for our health and our children’s health.”
Worse, Sumatran land is at capacity: all but six per cent of natural forests have been destroyed for pulp, palm oil and agriculture. As packaging demand rises, the islands of Borneo and Papua are the new frontiers. Construction of a mega pulp mill is already underway in Borneo.
MEPs also voiced their concerns. For instance, the tendency to dismiss paper-packaging impacts because of the misconception that recycling can take up the slack, overlooks the difficulties of recycling multi-layer packaging, and packaging’s need for long fibres from virgin wood.
MEPs pointed to the need to debunk dubious studies which are being promoted by the single-use packaging industry that disregard environmental impacts – for example, the pulp industry’s impact on water usage – in order to claim ‘sustainability’; to insist on pollution prevention and decreasing the overall volume of materials, to ease pressure on supply chains; to adhere to the waste hierarchy and to prioritise re-use.
Sometimes awareness of the material impacts of paper packaging is simply missing. People do not necessarily make the link between a paper cup and a tiger. Indeed, following Jikalahari’s powerful testimony at the European REUSE conference, the coordinator of a business coalition reached out to say that several members had asked, “How did we not know this? This has to be central in our fight.”
Curb demand for pulp: Demand is met by supply, entailing harm where wood and pulp are sourced. Ambitious waste prevention and re-use targets in the PPWR could be a crucial step to curbing demand for pulp, and to stopping the harm spreading to the last remaining tropical forests of Indonesia, documented by Jikalahari in Riau. Failing to include strict paper and board targets in the PPWR risks further aggravating the raging demand for pulp, with catastrophic outcomes for Indonesian forests and communities.