Don’t paper over this challenge

Don’t paper over this challenge

In Perspective

Foreign delegates take look on machinery at N J Stationary, in Mysuru

The growth of the paper industry in India is phenomenal, from just 17 paper mills in 1950-51, with an installed capacity of 1.37 lakh tons of paper every year to 14 million tons in 2018 with 750 mills. However, the industry is still not able to meet the rising demand, forcing us to import paper and paper products.

The Indian paper industry represents about 4% of world paper production, with an annual turnover of Rs 60,000 crore. Growing at about 7% annually, the Indian paper industry is facing multiple challenges in terms of sourcing raw material as well as upgrading technology to use less water to produce paper.

The global paper scenario is showing a steady increase in consumption, which is already more than 400 million tons annually. More than half of this consumption occurs in three countries -- China, the US and Japan. Surprisingly, the entire continent of Africa accounts for just 2% of global paper use. The planned expansion of the industry is taking place in Asia, putting enormous pressure on forest resources.

The average per capita consumption of paper in a year in India is about 13 kg, which is low compared to the world average of 57 kg, and over 300 kg in the advanced countries. Any increase in per capita consumption is bound to cause a serious shortage of paper.

The resource crunch can be addressed through increased use of recycled fibre. Already newsprint and packaging grades have more than 50% recycled material. But the printing and writing paper industry is using only 8% recycled raw material.

Natural forests are converted for supplying raw material to the paper industry and that has become the main driver of deforestation. The industry needs to charter a different path, avoiding the use of virgin fibre and sourcing it from alternative sources. India is a fibre deficient country, forcing us to import raw materials. This leads to higher cost of production.

With 0% import duty on newsprint, it was cheaper to import than to produce our own newsprint, until the Centre imposed a 10% customs duty.

There are increasing conflicts with indigenous communities in the regions from where the paper industry is sourcing raw material from the forests and community areas. The large extent of monoculture eucalyptus plantations is leading to negative consequences on ecology and communities.  

The enormous quantity of raw material in the form of wood, pulp and freshwater put pressure on the scarce natural resources like forests and rivers. The outdated technology and non-functioning of the effluent treatment plants create large amounts of solid and water wastes.

Paper industries are one of the biggest polluters and they use a heavy amount of freshwater from natural sources like rivers and reservoirs. In order to manufacture one A4 sheet of paper, about 20 litres of freshwater is required. The chemical-intensive process creates toxic effluents that pollute the rivers, harm ecosystems, and enter the food chain via aquatic resources like fish.

Paper mills also release air pollutants in the form of nitrogen and sulphur oxides that have a negative impact on public health.

The example of Kali River in Dandeli, Uttara Kannada, is living testimony. The West Coast Paper Mill dumps hazardous chemicals and water wastes into Kali with a negative impact on the downstream, as well as causing air pollution.

In addition to this, the industry has substantial climate change impacts from the stages of sourcing its raw materials from the forests to production that leads to an increase in emission of greenhouse gas.

Technology upgradation and instalment of pollution control measures will pave the way towards the production of paper lifecycles that have less climate change impacts as well as reduction of pollution.

However, this is bound to increase production costs impacting on the competitiveness of the industry in the international market. This is one of the main reasons for non-compliance of pollution control laws and modernization of technology in the paper industry in India.

The lifestyle changes and increased number of people joining the ranks of the middle class is bound to increase demand for paper. Increase of 1 kg consumption per person results in an increase in the demand by one million tons of paper.

How will our paper industry meet this demand? As most of our natural forests are depleted, we need to look for alternative sources to provide raw material, either reused paper or plant-based waste materials.

 Unfortunately, these mills are not suited to use recycled material as it requires advanced technologies. For example, these mills use 250 cubic meters of water to produce one ton of paper in comparison to 28 cubic meters in advanced countries.

 Obviously, upgrading paper mills require a huge investment in capital, energy, pollution control equipment and adaptation to alternative sources of raw material like bagasse, a by-product from sugar mills.

Is the paper industry willing to address these multiple challenges and still supply the most essential product to people in a sustainable way?