The Problems with "Paperless"

We've all heard it a thousand times. The biggest fad for the last 15 years: "Paperless" everything. These days there's paperless billing, paperless mailing, paperless statements, paperless receipts. You name it, there's probably a paperless version available somewhere. There are a few issues with going paperless that few people talk about though. That's what I am here to talk about today. Many paper products manufacturers were able to keep some level of production going throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Without them, we never would have made it through the toilet paper hoarding.

If paper product manufacturers are so important and staying open as well as they can, what's the big deal if we still go paperless? One of the problems with everything becoming paperless is that it's slowly killing some sectors of the forest products industry. As more people have been staying inside and doing business in digital and paperless ways, more mills have had to close. In 2020, Georgia Pacific ceased or minimized production in three different mills across the southeast. Domtar permanently shut down their A62 paper machine in Ashdown, AR. According to the second quarter Paper Market Update from Specialty Print Communications (SPC), "coated paper saw a 35% decline in demand and uncoated paper saw a 33% decline. The biggest drop, of 55%, was in copy paper due to school and corporation closures."

However, we can't just blame these declines and closures on the pandemic. Many of the major mill closures were already planned or happening by mid 2019, long before the pandemic began. There have been major shifts in forest products demand and processing and the effects are profound. Paper industry manufacturers have shifted towards packaging, fluff pulp, and other specialized products. Plywood, oriented-strand board (OSB), and other composite wood products have taken over a small portion of the steadily declining solid wood product industry.

Forest product mills have a ripple effect when they close, however. One mill closes, the nearest one ramps up production, the end market's desires are still met. What happens to the people who worked at that mill who can't get hired on at the other mill? What happens to their families and communities? The distance and cost to haul wood to that next mill may be too much for some loggers who hauled to the now-closed mill. What happens to those loggers when they have no mills to haul to? What happens to the health of their businesses or forests? What happens to the towns the mill workers and loggers lived in? What happens to the gas stations that profited from logging trucks? How far do the ripples go?

A small enough town could be completely ruined by a mill closure. Paper mill closures routinely directly result in 100-1,500 jobs lost. Indirectly, they could have cost 200-3,000 jobs, depending on how much the surrounding area depended on the mill, loggers, and other aspects of the forest industry. If the town isn't totally ruined, they are often a shell of what they could have been, had those mills been able to remain open. It's not feasible that any kind of mill will always be open and will never have any chance of closing. Life and consumer demand are far too unpredictable.

What can you do to help? Buy paper products. The continued purchase of responsibly made forest products is the easiest and best way to help preserve these mills, communities, and small businesses. Your dollar speaks volumes and shows what matters to consumers. How do you know what forest products are responsibly made? Look for these labels:

All of the above labels represent third party certifications of sustainable forest practices which ensure that landowners and companies are managing, harvesting, and using forests in ways which are responsible and ensure high quality forest environments for people, wildlife, water, and the world. Using products with these labels insures that you are doing your part to support both the planet and the people and communities which are held together by the forest products industry.

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