U.S. is NOT the Largest Paper Consumer

By | Posted May 7th, 2013

The United States uses a lot of energy, and—let’s face it—something of a bad rep when it comes to environmental policy. But despite all that energy use, the U.S. has something it can boast about in the environmental forum; we’re good at recycling our paper, and we aren’t the highest paper consumers.

U.S. is NOT the Largest Paper Consumer(Photo Credit: Vladyslav Starozhylov)

We did some more number crunching and found that, per capita, the United States is far from the biggest consumer of paper. In fact, Finland topped the list, each of its 5.2 million residents using 618.8 pounds of paper goods. Producing approximately one seventh of the paper that China—the world’s leader in paper production—does, Finland consumes four times more paper per person than the great Asian monolith.

Per capita rates can easily be skewed by population and industry. Countries with large forestry industries—like Finland, Austria, Germany, and Sweden—produce a lot of paper goods domestically and then export them, skewing the numbers. Massive populations can make big-time consumption seem puny when viewed at the individual level; China’s 1.3 billion people break down the 101 million tons of paper consumed in 2010 into surprisingly small per capita numbers.

So what’s going on in Japan? The 484.55 pounds per person that each of its 126 million residents use annually seems like a lot for a nation that is usually on the cutting-edge of technology. But while the rest of the world strives to leave fax machines and hard copies behind while Japan’s business world clings to them. In a survey of Japanese businessmen, 87.5% reported fax machines were crucial to their business. More than half of Japanese households still own fax machines.

Of the world’s 20 largest paper producers, the U.S. falls in 13th place for per capita consumption, with 193.61 pounds per person. China, the world’s largest producer of paper, uses only 151.91 pounds per person. Of course, it is also the largest consumer of paper—swallowing up more than 101 million tons in 2010.

But Japan, despite having less than half of the U.S. population and one tenth of the Chinese population; nestled itself in second place, consuming 30.7 million tons. When you look at the production of paper, they’re close to breaking even—with only a 640,000 ton difference from consumption to production.

China and U.S. are the two largest producers of paper, having churned out 101 million and 83.6 million tons of paper in 2010, respectively. But apparent consumption is a completely different story; China consumed nearly 99% of its paper, while the US consumed only 35.9% of what it produced.

The U.S., over decades of logging and environmental regulations, has shifted its goals. In 1990, the U.S. paper and forestry industry began establishing goals to recover 40% of paper consumed. They achieved this goal in 1996. They set a 60% recovery goal for 2012. As it stands, the EPA reported that in 2010, 45 million tons (or 63%) of all paper products were recycled.

In addition to recycling, the U.S. is also exporting recovered fiber. In 2009, about 36% of recovered paper was exported to Asia. China only collected 45.7 million tons of recycled paper in 2010, but consumed 73 million tons. Of course, this may change; China’s collection rate has spiked 19% since 2009.

The U.S. hasn’t decreased its production or consumption at all—it’s simply being out-produced and out-consumed by China and Japan. The only large country to decrease its production and consumption of paper was Canada, down 1.2% and 3%, respectively.

As other countries pump up their paper production, new environmental standards in the U.S. are propelling us into a new world of paper production and consumption where recycled materials, rather than the nation’s forests, are our greatest resource. We might not be slowing our paper consumption, but we are definitely fantastic at recycling and recovering paper—and that’s an important first step in a more environmentally healthy future.