Paper can be produced from a wide variety of raw materials. Though wood has generally been found to be the most cost-effective source of fiber, non-wood fiber has long been used in papermaking in some parts of the world, and some non-wood use continues today. It is important to recognize that production, collection, transport, and use of all raw materials result in environmental impacts. Fully understanding supply chains is critical to determining environmental attributes of any product.
In this report we build upon an earlier Dovetail examination of tree-free paper. Herein we present findings of various investigations into environmental impacts of alternative fiber and paper production systems, including a recent cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment (LCA) of alternative fiber use in production of tissue. We also look into the underlying assumption in the tree-free paper movement – that reducing or avoiding altogether the use of wood-derived fiber in making paper would, in fact, lead to more extensive forests and more trees.
The original Tree Free Paper report released on July 9th, 2014 triggered many positive comments, but several readers wanted to know why we had used outdated yield figures for southern yellow pine. It turns out that we had failed to appreciate that yields from intensively managed southern pine plantations have increased by as much as four-fold over just the last six decades, and have roughly doubled over the last three.
While the conclusions of the original report have not changed, comparisons of southern pine fiber yields to those obtainable from agricultural fiber crops have been revised. We earlier reported that cumulative annual yields of kenaf were significantly greater than fiber yields from southern yellow pine over a comparable period of time. The reality, based on more recent data, is that when comparisons are made to southern pine planted three to four decades ago, agricultural fiber crop yields are found to be somewhat higher - though less dramatic than we reported last month. However, when comparisons are made to yields of southern pine planted within the last one to two decades, pine fiber yields over the course of a rotation are comparable to or even higher than total cumulative fiber yields from annual fiber crops.
We found the differences between what we originally reported and new information as called to our attention by alert readers to be significant enough to warrant a report revision.