By PAMSA, edited by Leon Louw

Paper has a fascinating history. Developed centuries ago, it has been through the mill – literally and figuratively – in terms of what it is made of and how it is made.

It also has many interesting side stories: one narrative that often goes untold is how it stores carbon, making paper and the wood it comes from good for the planet.

“To understand why paper and wood products are vital to a lower carbon footprint, we can borrow from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s assertion that trees don’t grow from the ground, they grow from the air,” says Jane Molony, executive director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA).

Many of us first learned about photosynthesis in primary school: how plants absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide (CO2) to make food. Trees take in CO2 from the air, and water from the ground – which also came from the air at some point – and convert this into growth (trunks, roots and leaves). Oxygen is returned to the atmosphere. This carbon cycle is why trees of all kinds are such a vital part of keeping our planet regulated, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change.

A good story

“In South Africa, trees can be divided into two groups – indigenous trees in natural forests and commercially and sustainably farmed trees in plantations. The latter were introduced some 100 years ago to protect natural forests, by providing farmed wood for productive purposes,” says Molony.

Plantation trees are essentially crops that are planted and replenished in rotations, with only 9% of the total tree count being harvested in any given year. This means that there are always trees growing, at different stages of maturity, and these trees are contributing to the carbon cycle, not to mention the economy and the livelihoods of thousands of people.

Even when planted trees are harvested for their wood – for construction or for paper, packaging, and tissue – the carbon remains locked up in the wood fibres and stays there for the lifecycle of those products. It’s just one of the reasons paper recycling is important – it keeps the carbon locked up for longer.

New chapters for wood

As the paper sector finds ways to diversify in the face of digitisation and reduced printing and writing paper demand, chemists and chemical engineers are increasingly discovering the wonder of wood.

Wood is made up of cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, sugars, and extracts. The properties of these elements make them suitable ingredients in countless, low-carbon products. Dissolving wood pulp, a purified form of cellulose, is suitable for chemical conversion into a range of products – it is spun into viscose and lyocell textile fibres for use in fashion and decorating textiles, cast into a film or regenerated into a sponge.

Extremely versatile, cellulose can also bind active medicinal ingredients or vitamins into palatable tablets, stabilise emulsions or increase viscosity – which is why it’s added to low-fat yoghurt and lipstick!

Nanocellulose – tiny cellulose nanofibres – can be used in food supplements and edible packaging, or even as a composite for screens on electronic devices.

And by growing more trees and making innovative things from them we make our lives better, our jobs easier and our world more sustainable.