Climate change, pests and unsustainable harvesting have left the Canadian forestry industry vulnerable. But as wildfires across the country decimate large swaths of Canada’s remaining forests, an international non-profit based in Vancouver is helping companies find alternatives to pulp and paper-based packaging in an effort to ease the pressure on forests.

In order to meet its climate targets, Canada must transition away from its heavy reliance on forestry, which contributes $34.8 billion to the country’s nominal GDP and provided 177,693 Canadians with jobs in 2021. The logging industry is one of the highest greenhouse gas emitters in Canada, according to a 2022 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Nature Canada. It accounts for more than 10 per cent of Canada’s total emissions, on par with oilsands production.

The report also found the Canadian government has failed to precisely report the logging industry’s emissions and has not yet adopted a management plan to reduce them. Without a clear strategy from the federal government, Canada risks missing its 2030 climate targets leaving its boreal forest — one of the largest sections of intact forest on Earth — vulnerable to unsustainable harvesting.

Nicole Rycroft is not waiting for an action plan from the government. She is taking forest protection into her own hands by helping companies across the globe transition away from the logging industry. Rycroft is the founder and executive director of Canopy, an international Vancouver-based environmental non-profit that has worked with over 900 companies worldwide, including Nike, H&M and Zara, to implement circular supply chains and reduce deforestation. Canopy aims to help companies transition away from single-use paper packaging and cellulosic fabrics that are sourced from logging and instead use recycled, discarded materials and sustainable alternatives.

“Between today and about 10 years from now, we'll have 60 million tonnes of next-generation products on the market globally,” said Rycroft. “That will displace one-third of the trees that are currently cut down to make pulp and paper packaging and disposable clothing. It will enable us to ensure that absolutely no ancient and endangered forest fibre is being cut to disappear into a pulp machine.”

The pulp and paper industry uses 33 to 40 per cent of the industrial wood traded globally. This wood is often sourced in an unsustainable manner that involves clear-cutting, illegal harvesting and human rights abuses. Many of the forests that are being clear-cut also have high conservation value due to the diversity of species that call these forests home and the amount of carbon they can sequester, preventing the greenhouse gas from accumulating in our atmosphere and contributing to climate change.

“When you cut down forests, the carbon that has been stored in the trees and in the soil gets released into the atmosphere, leading to more impacts of climate change,” said Rycroft. “[Climate change] leads to more forest fires and more pest infestations, so you then lose more forests, which leads to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. You end up with this very negative cycle.”

Nicole Rycroft speaking at TED2023 in Vancouver on April 19, 2023. Photo by Ryan Lash / TED

Canopy aims to reduce global pulp and paper consumption by 16.65 million tonnes from 2016 levels by 2030, according to the non-profit’s 2020-30 action plan. This ambitious goal will be accomplished by working with companies and suppliers to change policies and facilitate the transition towards sustainable alternatives. This transition will include sourcing packaging and fabric from recycled, discarded materials, investing in mills that produce paper alternatives, like straw and other agricultural fibres, and sourcing wood products from sustainable sites, not endangered or ancient forests of high conservation value.

“Between today and about 10 years from now, we'll have 60 million tonnes of next-generation products on the market globally,” said Nicole Rycroft, founder of the environmental non-profit Canopy.

According to Rycroft, using recycled materials has the lowest environmental footprint, and Canopy encourages its industry partners to prioritize recycled material over other alternatives. Approximately 100 billion items of clothing are produced globally each year and more than 60 per cent of those items end up in a landfill within 12 months, according to Rycroft. Recycling these materials for the pulp and paper industry not only reduces the number of trees that are needed but also helps to divert clothing from landfills.

Agricultural residues left over after the harvest are the next most sustainable alternative. In Canada, 50 million tonnes of straw is produced annually and only half of that is required for agriculture, said Rycroft. The remaining straw is an “untapped resource” that Rycroft believes should be used in pulp and paper mills, instead of shipped away and burned in other countries like India.

Rycroft also acknowledges there is still a need for trees that are planted for the purpose of being used in the pulp and paper industry. However, crops such as hemp and bamboo are a more sustainable alternative than trees, as long as they are sourced from responsible sites that ensure these plants do not become invasive, said Rycroft. And if the companies Canopy works with still need to source some of their packaging or fabric from wood-based pulp and paper mills, Canopy ensures they only use products sourced from sites certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, “the most rigorous certification system out there,” according to Rycroft. FSC-certified sites protect ancient and endangered forests, prioritize biodiversity preservation, protect Indigenous and local community rights, and ensure that workers are paid a fair wage.

Many of the solutions to forest degradation already exist, we just need to make use of alternative materials and modify the infrastructure that we already have, according to Rycroft. Many existing pulp and paper mills can be retrofitted to mill recycled paper, clothing and agricultural fibres.

“You can actually bundle up hundreds of millions of old jeans and T-shirts and send those to the mill to be manufactured,” said Rycroft. “There's no reason that we can’t do this here in British Columbia as well as across Canada. There's no shortage of shuttered wood-based pulp mills.”

By retrofitting closed pulp mills and reopening them to manufacture paper packaging and clothing made from recycled materials or agricultural residues, the Canadian pulp and paper industry can help revitalize local economies and transition towards a circular supply chain.

“The marketplace is shifting,” said Rycroft. “The tolerance for products that are generated through these linear, extractive, ‘take, make, waste’ production systems is disappearing. The Canadian industry and the Canadian government are going to be caught on the wrong foot.”

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
June 29, 2023, 08:33 am

This story has been corrected to reflect that Canopy, an international Vancouver-based environmental non-profit and works to protect endangered forests.

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There are plenty of opportunities for individuals to change their purchasing habits too. As I explained to my mom ... Recycled toilet paper hasn't previously been used as, well, toilet paper. Maybe some rebranding is in order. How about calling it TP (tree-protecting) TP? :)

Hahahaha: TP TP. Does anyone still call toilet paper "TP"?

I would really like to know if the use of used wood fiber has increased since the Chinese government instituted it's 'Operation National Sword' initiative.. which as we all know led to municipalities across North America dumping the contents of Blue Box recycling programs into landfill.
Also, I was thinking.. maybe instead of, or in addition to.. giving canned goods to the food bank.. maybe it would make better or as much sense to donate recycled toilet paper.. after all, taste in food can vary from one person to another.. but that is not so much the case when it comes to toilet paper. Maybe our food bank could order a whole truck load to save on transportation costs.. perhaps it could even be crowdfunded.

Straw if not used on farm for bedding should stay on farm to recycle nutrients and carbon on the farm. Straw removed from a farm is at the expense of soil health on that farm. I support the arguments that consumers should use less, recycle paper and clothes etc. but as an agronomist I do not support the use of straw to replace pulp.

Would have been nice if you linked to Canopy’s website

Back in the day, trim from the lumber industry was used in the pulp industry.
Before that, it was just burned.
Straw benefits all soil on which plants grow, including urban backyard gardens.

It's kind of staggering how much of all we produce - food, clothing, steel, paper, plastic - just goes to waste. Reading stories from a few generations back about people saving every manufactured item that entered the house, about kids going without shoes in summer - they seem as distant in time as "Star Trek", only in reverse.

I agree with many of Canopy's approaches to reducing the pressure on forests. However, Nicole Rycroft's statements about the Forest Stewardship Council deny the reality that FSC certified forest management is neither ecologically or socially/culturally sustainable. Put in another way, the FSC is a sophisticated "greenwash" that regrettably is propped up by environmental groups, like Canopy.

I was part of an organization, the Silva Forest Foundation, that was Canada's first accredited FSC certification body. We performed many audits using our own standards, which were significantly more rigorous than regional FSC standards, which tend to be watered down by an increasingly strong industry lobby within the FSC. Our work audited small forestry operations that were family run and have lead the way in practicing ecologically sustainable forestry, including protection of important forests, like old-growth forests. We were never asked to audit large timber companies, because they did not want to adhere to a higher standard than that set by the FSC.

A major flaw in the FSC system is that companies seeking certification pick their own auditor, and pay the auditor when the certification evaluation is complete. A blatant conflict of interest and a fatal flaw in the FSC system. Do you think that an auditor that charges a company $30k to $40k for a certification audit will deny certification??

Would Canopy care to answer this question: Is it better for toilet paper to begin its life in a cotton farm (via clothing) or is it better for toilet paper to begin its life in a forest that can be replanted and re-fix the CO2 generated? My bet is that a managed forest is ecologically a better solution than the intensive agriculture of cotton farming.
Anyone up for a rayon t-shirt made from wood pulp?

Maybe the retooling of pulp & paper mills can also involve chemical processes that don't compromise the health of people who work there or nearby, or live downwind.