At WestRock, we are helping people better understand the importance of virgin fiber — and the role sustainably managed forests play in ensuring that we continue to protect and reinvest in this valuable, renewable resource.
Forests are a haven in our harried lives. The times I’ve spent in nature with my two boys going on hikes or just being outdoors are some of my most memorable. Forestry sits at a special intersection of my professional and personal lives.
In addition to providing a reprieve in our often stressful lives, forests provide a critical habitat for species of all kinds, and give us the literal air we need to take that deep breath.
When it comes to trees, we can — and should be — fiercely protective. I know I am.
That’s why I’m grateful to serve as Senior Vice President of Forest Resources and Recycled Fiber at WestRock, a paper and packaging company — which is not only committed to sustainable forestry management and procurement, but to investing in the collaborative partnerships and educational efforts vital for ensuring people are as informed as they are engaged.
In my work in sustainability over the years, I’ve recognized that there can sometimes be a disconnect between perception and reality when it comes to sustainability. So, I wanted to take a moment to tackle some of the most prevalent misconceptions and help equip people who care so passionately about this planet with the information that can best help them create positive, and lasting, sustainability impacts.
Perception: Removing trees is bad for sustainability.
Reality: Cultivating and maintaining a healthy forest is akin to cultivating and maintaining a healthy garden or crops.
When people see a tree harvested, sometimes their first impulse is “that’s bad for the environment.” But when we remove trees, we’re doing it in a way that is responsible — including replanting trees for future forests.
Cultivating and maintaining a healthy forest is similar to harvesting crops. There’s a season for harvesting and for replanting, which ensures a sustainable and healthy forest. Another way to look at it is like tending a garden — we remove trees that are less productive, for the overall forest’s health.
The key here is forest management. When we neglect our forests, they can become overcrowded — creating a canopy so impenetrable that the sun cannot reach trees and plants of varying heights. This overcrowding also puts forests at greater risk for disease and wildfire.
Perception: 100 percent recycled content is a sustainable option at scale.
Reality: Paper fibers can only be recycled a few times; we need to incorporate virgin fibers to increase the longevity of the fiber cycle in packaging.
Another popular misconception is the idea that 100 percent recycled content is a viable long-term sustainability solution. Here’s the thing: 100 percent recycled content is not a sustainable option at scale. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but there is a tipping point. Fibers can only be recycled five to seven times before they drop out of the papermaking process. Simply put, as virgin fiber is recycled multiple times, the individual fibers become weaker and eventually become so weak that they filter out of the paper-making process. Paper packaging made from virgin fiber is required to supplement the loss of fiber that has been recycled multiple times and is no longer viable for paper and packaging. As far as that recycled fiber that is no longer is viable for producing recyclable packaging — at WestRock, we utilize that in our boilers to produce renewable energy.
Our minds love the tidiness of 100 percent recycled, and our hearts connect with the passion of this all-or-nothing promise. But the truth is, virgin fibers play a pivotal role in promoting greater sustainability and performance, which is why WestRock prioritizes sustainable forestry as an invaluable aspect of recycled content. Virgin, or new, fiber is essential to keep the cycle going and provide balance in the supply.
Central to this sustainable forestry management is a financial incentive. Demand for sustainably-managed virgin fiber incentivizes family forest owners to participate in the market. Without this economic demand for renewable and sustainable virgin fiber, landowners would have less incentive to sustainably maintain healthy and productive forests, and could potentially opt to convert their forest into other, more lucrative uses that don’t provide the environmental benefits healthy forests provide, including clean air and water, abundant wildlife, and carbon sequestration.
Perception: Most wood material comes from forests that are owned by corporations or the government, or come from overseas.
Reality: Family forest owners comprise the largest source of wood in the US.
In the southeastern US, nearly 90 percent of forests are privately owned, and two-thirds of those are owned by families or individuals. According to the American Forest Foundation, families and individuals collectively care for the largest portion of forests in the US — more than the government or corporations — collectively caring for 290 million acres of our nation’s forests.
This is why I’m so excited that WestRock is expanding efforts to educate family forest owners and continue our partnerships for sustainably managing their forests. It’s essential to equip these families with the tools, education and resources they need to understand how to protect and promote growth. Through our work with multiple science-based organizations and NGO partners, we are directly engaging, supporting and teaching families sustainable forestry-management techniques — not only for their family legacy, but also for the planet’s longevity. I’m proud of WestRock’s engagement at the individual landowner level to help support them in their dreams of owning and managing a financially viable and sustainable forest that they can pass on to future family generations. Without the financial value of the forest, many landowners would not be able to maintain a healthy forest.
Perception: True sustainability is an altruistic pursuit.
Reality: Tying profitability to sustainability can encourage more sustainable practices.
In our video series, “Fiber of Our Being,” we are helping people better understand the importance of virgin fiber — and the role sustainably managed forests play in ensuring that we continue to protect and reinvest in this valuable, renewable resource.
Part of that work involves incentivizing family forest owners to adopt sustainable management practices; providing a market for their products offsets the cost of sustainable management. WestRock plays a vital role in family forest owners’ ability to maintain the viability of their land for future generations.
I’m especially proud of the WestRock Foundation’s work with the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation. This program assists minority landowners by properly documenting legal records of land ownership, and provides education and resources about sustainable forestry management so that it generates economic value for them.
I recognize the many ways in which people and planet are interconnected. It comes through for me nearly every single day in the work I do with — and for — forests.