Is Paperboard Really Sustainable?

by Megan Arnold August 11, 2021

When you think about sustainable, eco-friendly packaging, you try to get as far away from plastic as possible. In fact, the first thing that probably pops into your head is paperboard packaging. But what if you were faced with the question: is paperboard packaging really all that sustainable?

The Myths Behind Paper

A sprawling forest showing the tops of the trees against the blue skyThe short and simple answer is yes, but before we can get to the why behind that answer, we first must consider the myths that lead people to condemn paperboard packaging. So, what are these myths? A fair number of people believe that paper leads to deforestation, that paper is bad for the environment, and that going paperless is the ideal choice to make in order to save the trees. In fact, according to a survey from Two Sides North America, 48% of Americans subscribe to the idea that paper is bad for the environment and 60% believe that the forests are shrinking. When you think about the fact that paper is made from wood fiber, you can understand why people might believe such things.

So, What’s The Truth

Despite the myths out there, the actuality is that paperboard packaging is a highly sustainable and recyclable form of packaging.

First, cutting down trees to produce paper is not a free-for-all. There are agencies in place designed to regulate and certify this type of forestry. Organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) set standards that go way beyond just making sure that trees are getting cut down properly. To be a sustainable forest, new trees must be planted for the ones that get cut down and plans have to be put in place for the general protection and conservation of the forest lands and habitats that might be disturbed in the process. It’s not only about protecting what’s there, but about making sure it’s protected for future generations.

A collection of notebooks and paper sitting open on a desk

Secondly, what if I told you that more trees are being grown then are being harvested? It’s true! Between 1990 and 2020, U.S. forest area grew by 18 million acres while the forest area in Canada remained stable. To add to that, only 2% of that forested area is used for harvesting trees at all! That’s less area than is disturbed by natural events like fire or insects.

Lastly, while paper seems to be everywhere we look, the materials needed to make that paper isn’t primarily coming from trees harvested for that purpose. Only 36% of what is harvested is harvested for the use of paper and paperboard packaging production. The rest of the material is a by-product of forestry for the lumber industry.

The Third R: Recycle

We all know there’s one more important piece to this puzzle: Recycling. As you can imagine, paper and paperboard makes up a big chunk of what gets recycled daily. According to the Paperboard Packaging Alliance, 74.6% of all the packaging recovered for recycling is paperboard. And that can have a huge impact on both the paper industry and the environment:

Three Epic paperboard folding cartons sitting side by side with one showing a chicken, one showing a deer, and another a bison

  • Recycled paper can be used and re-used multiple times to create more paper, which means less organic wood fiber must be collected directly from forests.
  • Less paper decomposing in the landfills means less greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Less paper in landfills also means less landfill space being used in the first place
  • Using recycled materials to produce paper requires less energy then creating paper from scratch

The Answer: Yes

Let’s go back to that question we asked at the very beginning: Is paperboard sustainable? Clearly, the answer is a resounding yes. Even though paper is made from trees, it is, and will probably remain, one of the most sustainable packaging options out there. So, the next time you need to design some packaging for your products, turn to the obvious eco-friendly choice: paper.



Megan Arnold
Megan Arnold