Paper and print still play a vital role in society | Infrastructure news

In celebration of International Print Day which took place on 26 October, Jane Molony, executive director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA) discusses the vital role that paper and print play in society, as well as their role in environmental sustainability.

Since the invention of the movable mass printing press by German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg in 1436, the world has seen a relentless and exponential growth in knowledge, literacy, scientific exploration, and countless benefits to human society. Overnight, reading and writing went from the exclusive domain of monks and the elite, to opening up a new world of enlightenment for all.

Millions of books have been published since Gutenberg’s printing press, and today printers are ubiquitous in homes and offices around the world. But paper consumption has changed over the years, as consumers have turned to digital and electronic means to consume news or communicate with others.

With this change has come the belief that the paper industry contributes to deforestation and increased carbon emissions, along with mounting calls for business and society to go paperless.

From the promotion of e-book readers to “go green” messages at the bottom of emails urging recipients not to print, the average consumer may be excused for taking these notions on board. However, there is no evidence to support this premise.

Forests replenished       

In fact, not only do forestry and forest products (like wood and paper) continue to play a crucial role in modern society, but they are also a crucial part of the economy and natural eco-systems, creating millions of jobs while capturing carbon and cleaning our air.

Also, using pulp, paper, paper packaging and tissue from sustainably managed plantations does not cause deforestation. Species of trees are sustainably grown, harvested, and replenished, capturing and storing carbon from the atmosphere while they are growing and once converted into paper or wooden products.

Only 10% of farmed trees are harvested annually and these are fully replenished with new trees being planted within the same year. This leaves 90% to continue sequestering carbon from the air, and the increasingly efficient paper recycling system means the carbon is locked up for longer.

The industry also creates direct and indirect jobs for thousands of people in South Africa’s rural areas and cities, from the forest to the factory.

Trees capture carbon

In South Africa, wood for paper is sourced from 850 million trees planted over 676 000 hectares. These forests are managed carefully by teams of professional foresters, environmentalists, researchers, engineers, and a host of other people.

Mostly the industry captures more carbon than it emits, supporting a circular economy that benefits businesses, society, and the environment. In Europe, for example, the paper, pulp, and print sector are one of the lowest industrial emitters of greenhouse gases, accounting for just 0.8% of all emissions.

Also, the industry’s raw material is renewable, natural, and sustainable, with paper being easily collected and recycled. So, the valuable fibres can be used again and again.

Digital and the future of paper

The role of paper and printing, even with the growing uptake of screens, is just as important as ever, if not more so.

Digital media comes with its own set of issues. Often ignored are the energy and financial costs of running and powering devices, infrastructure, and online systems – more than half the world still uses fossil fuels to generate electricity. And unlike paper, there is no carbon sequestration that takes place naturally.

Furthermore, after an initial spike in the uptake of book readers and tablets in the classroom, parents and educators are becoming increasingly aware of the crucial role of paper and print in education.

As useful as they are, screens cannot replicate the powerful tactile and occupational development that takes place when growing children use pen and paper to read and write, not to mention the addictive nature of digital devices.

While digital clearly makes sense in a host of applications, such as the delivery of statements via email, word processing and scanning, paper is just as much a part of the digital journey.

You still need printed paper to display bar codes, QR codes and other media that makes use of emerging technologies, like augmented reality. 3D printers are not only using plastics, or resins, but recycled paper as well, creating a variety of objects in a more sustainable way.

Some may say that print is dead. We believe it is not dead, just different, and paper in its myriad of formats to support print, is here to stay.

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