Reports of Big Paper’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

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The internet was supposed to change everything. Meh.

This story was originally published by Slate and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Last fall, the specialty paper maker Dunn Paper closed its mill in Port Huron, Michigan, where, for about a century, it had been making paper used everywhere from the food industry to medical settings. In March, the packing paper firm Sonoco announced it would permanently shutter its Hutchinson Paper Mill—which turned 100 more than a decade ago—and lay off scores of workers.

In North Carolina, paper manufacturer Pactiv Evergreen closed a plant in Canton with approximately 1,000 workers—despite the pleadings of the state’s governor. The company was so central to the area’s economy that high school students were reportedly still finishing up paper and pulp trade classes meant to prepare them for working at the plant.

At first glance, the closure of America’s mills might make intuitive sense. Today, payment platforms text us receipts and college admission decisions are first announced via online portal. Banks charge for monthly statements sent via snail mail. No one says “Think Before You Print,” because no one needs to hear it.

This was one promise of digitization. Personal computers and the internet were supposed to obviate the need for a lot of paper. And in many ways, they did. Emails and texts have replaced a large swath of nondigital written communication, and the cloud serves as an alternative to hard copies. As a result, annual worldwide production of printing and writing papers has declined by about 30 percent since its high in 2007.

But that’s not quite why American paper mills, overall, are closing. Many of the mills closing in the US don’t make this kind of paper, and the diminishing relevance of printer paper hasn’t spelled the end of Big PaperanywayAnnual production of paper and paperboard has grown by about 60 percent since 1993according to statistics collected by the United Nations. And amid the race to combat climate change, the paper industry is now hoping to compete with products that are traditionally made with plastic, like straws and bottles. (Recycling notwithstanding).

There’s one simple reason why paper is still popular. A growing global population means people need more of the paper-based products we’ve always needed, like tissue paper, napkins, tea bags, and disposable cutlery. “Sanitary-type paper is in constant growth,” says Burak Aksoy, a research professor who studies new papermaking technologies at Auburn University’s Forest Products Development Center.

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