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Balanced Mill System: Virgin & Recycled Fibers for Papermaking

Sustainability
Corrugated boxes moving down a conveyor at a box plant.

In an era where sustainability is not just a preference but a necessity, the papermaking industry stands at a crucial juncture. The construction of new state-of-the-art 100% recycled paper mills in the US is a testament to this transition. However, amidst this progress, misconceptions linger: one, that paper production leads to deforestation, and two, that we should aim for 100% recycled content in all paper products. It is time to dispel these myths and underscore the importance of a balanced mill system that synergizes virgin fibers and old corrugated containers (OCC) for sustainable papermaking. 

The Importance of a Balanced Approach

Contrary to popular belief, trees used for papermaking are grown sustainably, much like crops. These managed timberlands ensure a continuous, renewable source of raw material, aligning with sustainable forest management practices.

Sustainable forest management practices enhance the forest’s capacity to absorb and store atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. This process helps mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gases. 

Recycled fibers, a cornerstone of the recycled paper industry, originate from used paper products. However, their supply is inherently finite. Each recycling cycle shortens and weakens the fibers, limiting their usability to 5-7 cycles. 

Highlighting the industry’s efficiency, OCC, including those used for pizza boxes, are 100% recyclable and can be reintroduced back into the supply chain to create more boxes. The recyclability of boxes plays a critical role in the industry’s sustainability narrative. 

In a sustainable papermaking process, virgin and recycled fibers complement each other. Virgin fibers replenish the strength lost in recycled fibers, maintaining the structural integrity necessary for quality paper products over the 5-7 reuse cycles.  

The corrugated packaging supply chain requires a steady stream of recycled and virgin fiber to remain sustainable. Without the continuous introduction of virgin fibers into the papermaking process, the fiber supply would be depleted within eight months.  

Critical Balance Between Virgin and Recycled Fiber

Responsibly sourced virgin fibers contribute to sustainable forest management, while recycled fibers conserve resources and reduce waste. Using virgin fibers enhances recycled products’ strength, durability, and quality. Integrating both types of fibers enables manufacturers to meet today’s demands while safeguarding future needs. 

A Model of Vertical Integration

Sustainable management of timberlands ensures a continuous, renewable source of high-quality virgin fibers. This practice aligns not only with environmental goals but also with broader global standards for sustainable forestry. The trees are grown, harvested, and replenished in a cycle that respects the balance of the ecosystem, ensuring a positive environmental impact. 

According to the Paper & Packaging Board, the paper industry plants about 2x as many trees as it uses each year, resulting in 20% more trees than 50 years ago. These healthy forests support ecosystems by providing habitats for plants and animals, contributing to the overall well-being of the environment.  

Paper Recycling Efforts

In addition to its sustainable forestry practices, the papermaking industry has a fantastic recycling story. The paper industry has a long history of implementing recycling programs for communities, businesses, and retailers to recover used corrugated boxes. The Fiber Box Association states that corrugated “cardboard” is recycled more than any other packaging material in the U.S. 

OCC recycling helps reduce landfill pressure by diverting paper waste from disposal and conserving valuable landfill space. It also promotes a circular economy, where materials are reused and recycled, reducing the demand for virgin resources and minimizing environmental impact. As reported by the American Forest & Paper Association, the recycling rate of OCC in the U.S. has been over 90% for the past ten years and is expected to continue.  

Enhancing Fiber Sourcing for Sustainable Paper Products

A strong fiber sourcing strategy is a crucial component of its sustainability commitment. By managing both virgin and recycled fiber mills, papermakers can precisely control the quality and environmental footprint of the fibers used in the products. This control is vital for producing superior strength and durability, which ensures high-quality paper withstands the high standards of finished products, which include a range of corrugated containers and packaging solutions. 

Green Bay Packaging's balanced mill system for fiber sourcing to create sustainable packaging.

Dispelling common misconceptions about the papermaking process is critical to understanding the importance of a balanced mill system in the paper industry.

Moving us towards a greener future, it’s imperative to recognize and support such sustainable practices in the industry. Green Bay Packaging’s balanced mill model integrates virgin and recycled fibers, exemplifying sustainable papermaking. To learn more, visit: https://gbp.com/sustainability/environmental-sustainability/

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