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Understanding the Circular Economy and the Forest Products Industry

Advancing Sustainability and Economic Growth  

As we look to the future, we continue to advance the circular economy. Let’s dive into what that means!

What is the Circular Economy?

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines the circular economy as “A circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design and   aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles.”

The circular economy makes the most of resources, reduces waste and creates lasting value.

It's a cycle that keeps going. Instead of throwing things away, we look for ways to make them useful again.

The traditional linear economy follows the "take-make-dispose" approach. The circular economy promotes a closed-loop system. Resources reused for as long as possible through recycling, repurposing and remanufacturing.

Why Does the Circular Economy Matter?

Increasing circularity in our economy builds resilience, generates new business opportunities and provides economic, environmental and social benefits.

The circular economy prioritizes resource conservation and sustainable supply chains.

The Forest Products Industry & the Circular Economy

The forest products industry is inherently circular in its supply chain. Trees are replanted to supply fiber and enhance the environment. And paper and packaging are recycled to make new products. This is how our industry is contributing to a more sustainable future.

Let’s break it down:

  1. It starts with sustainably managed forests that supply wood fiber for manufacturing. Most forests in the U.S. are privately owned by small landowners. More than 1 billion trees are planted in the U.S. each year
  2. Sawmills use sustainably harvested wood to make wood products. 
  3. Wood fiber from sawmills is also used, often with recycled paper, to manufacture paper and packaging. Converting mills turn this paper into products. 
  4. The paper and packaging industry uses renewable biomass energy residuals – left over wood fiber and other manufacturing materials – to power mills. 
  5. Paper-based packaging is a sustainable option that allows brands to deliver products safely and communicate with consumers. After use, packaging is collected and sent back to mills to be recycled. 
    In the United States, 94% of the people have access to community recycling programs for paper. And 79% of Americans have access to residential-curbside programs, making it efficient and effective to recycle paper at home. 
      Many of our member companies own and operate material recovery facilities and collection programs. 
  6. As this process comes full circle, the recycled paper is sorted and fed back into our manufacturing process to make new products.

The Circular Economy in Action

AF&PA members goal to advance the circular value chain aims to:

  • Maximize efficient use of resources including fiber.
  • Reuse water and other resources multiple times.
  • Utilize manufacturing byproducts to produce carbon-neutral biomass energy.
  • And optimize the use of non-renewable resources.

Explore How Our Industry is Advancing the Circular Economy 

Juno clave extracts recyclable materials from municipal waste

Juno is an Innovative Recycling Technology

“Juno is a new innovative waste diversion and recycling process that captures recyclable material previously destined for landfill or incineration because of coatings or food contamination,” said John Mulcahy, Vice President – Stewardship for Georgia-Pacific.

WestRock 2022 Sustainability Award Photo

Expanding Paper-based Packaging Solutions

WestRock is advancing the circular value chain with Sustainable Ready Meals: Turn Key Solution. This innovation uses recyclable fiber-based wrap and shelve-ready case pack, resulting in a 90% reduction in plastic per food bowl. ​

Green Bay Packaging Green Bay Mill

Advancing Sustainable Water Use

"Water is key to the papermaking process, so we are reliant on, and a stakeholder in, sustainable use of water resources. For every ton of paper fiber recycled, it is estimated 550 gallons of water are conserved, and significant water impacts are avoided." - Lisa Bauer-Lotto, Green Bay Packaging

How Can You Support a Circular Economy? 

This new way of thinking has the power to address big global issues. We can each play a role in advancing the circular economy. Even at home, you can play a role:

  • Choose sustainable products that can be easily reused, recycled or repurposed
  • Recycle your paper products – it’s easy, learn how!

Supporting the circular economy stimulates innovation, encourages collaboration across industries and fosters job creation in sectors related to sustainability and resource management. 

By embracing the circular economy, we can all do our part to help shape a better world for generations to come. 

The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) serves to advance U.S. paper and wood products manufacturers through fact-based public policy and marketplace advocacy. The forest products industry is circular by nature. AF&PA member companies make essential products from renewable and recyclable resources, generate renewable bioenergy and are committed to continuous improvement through the industry’s sustainability initiative —Better Practices, Better Planet 2030: Sustainable Products for a Sustainable Future. The forest products industry accounts for approximately 5% of the total U.S. manufacturing GDP, manufactures about $350 billion in products annually and employs about 925,000 people. The industry meets a payroll of about $65 billion annually and is among the top 10 manufacturing sector employers in 43 states. Visit AF&PA online at or follow us on Twitter @ForestandPaper