Renewable commercial forests that supply the paper, pulp and board industry with wood fibre provide key environmental services and conserve our indigenous forests, says Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (Pamsa) executive director Jane Molony.
“Commercially grown trees have helped to protect South Africa’s indigenous forests from being used to meet the wood fibre needs of the country. Many products – such as paper, cardboard, tissues, tables, pencils and dissolving wood pulp – are manufactured locally using farmed trees.”
Further, she adds that, globally, plantations are important for the supply of wood to the industry. Despite only taking up 7% of the planet’s forest area, they provide about 50% of this raw material for industrial purposes.
In South Africa, indigenous trees cover 0.5-million hectares, which is about 0.4% of the country’s land cover. Commercial plantations cover 1.2-million hectares, which is 1% of the available land. About 25% of South Africa’s natural forests are conserved within timber plantations, along with highly biodiverse grasslands.
“More than 840-million trees are grown over 693 000 ha to make pulp and paper in South Africa, with 41% of plantations located in Mpumalanga and 40% in KwaZulu-Natal,” says Molony.
However, she highlights that the general public still has a misconception about where paper comes from, confusing plantation forestry with deforestation. Deforestation is the destruction of natural forests and rainforests without planting new trees, whereas sustainable commercial forestry is similar to farming – new trees are planted in the same year that older trees were felled.
The South African forest products sector is heavily regulated by government. Before new trees can be planted, the appropriate ground and environment studies are done and water licences have to be issued, she explains.
“Given that land suitable for the commercial growing of trees is limited, virgin fibre is supplemented with recovered paper . . . an injection of virgin fibre is always needed in the papermaking process because paper fibres shorten and weaken each time they are recycled,” she explains.
Molony states that the paper production industry in South Africa is fortunate, owing to a robust paper-recycling industry. In 2016, 68.4% of the recoverable paper in the country was recycled, which is above the global average of 58%. South Africa’s paper recovery rate has increased by 2% year-on-year since 2015.
She explains that, while paper and paper packaging are recyclable in their ‘natural’ state, recycling becomes more challenging when glues, foils, laminates and other elements are introduced.
“Through packaging council Packaging South Africa, companies are encouraged ‘to design packaging with recyclability in mind’. This means that the design of the product or packaging is designed and manufactured to be recyclable. Recyclability should not be an after-thought; it should be the first element that packaging designers consider.”
Further, there is a movement within the manufacturing industry to use products that are more environment friendly. The ink that is being used to print on paper and cardboard has become water-soluble, which drastically decreases the environmental impact of paper packaging.
Molony highlights that the South African pulp and paper industry avoids 1.3-million tons of carbon emissions from fossil fuels using renewable biomass energy. Emissions are also offset by the trees grown for papermaking.
Using steam and carbon-neutral waste products, such as black liquor, paper-making mills can produce their own power, she adds.
The waste products from the paper, pulp and board industry also include lignin, which is the glue that holds the fibres in trees together. This can be converted into bio oils and biochemicals. She explains further that nanotechnology allows the industry to break down cellulose to form nano fibres for use in a variety of applications.
Further, sugars, such as xylose, can be used to make the artificial sweetener xylitol. Research into the development of wood-based products, such as bioplastics and other materials from the components of a tree, is being done by institutes in South Africa and the rest of the world, adds Molony.
“These exciting innovations are making the industry more sustainable and adaptive as demand for printing and writing grades decline and the world seeks more renewable, low carbon solutions. Wood and wood-based composites can perform the same functions as nonrenewable, fossil-based materials,” she concludes.