Freshwater Use x Literature + Paper

by Lea Papoulis

 Akira Hojo via Unsplash.

Liters needed to produce one A4 sheet of Paper

An A4 piece of paper uses a global average of 5,1 Liters during the production cycle from (Schyns, Booij and Hoekstra, 2017).

Million Books sold in the US in 2021

In 2021, about 825 Million books were sold in the US. It marks the highest number since 2004 (Publishers Weekly, 2022).


400 pages is the average length of a book published In the year of 2014 (Richard, 2015).


Liters of Water used per Year to produce Books

This number has been calculated based on the amounts of liters needed to produce one A4 sheet of paper, the amounts of books sold solely in the US in the year 2021, and half the length of an average book published in 2014.

Ian Keefe via Unsplash.        

What is considered freshwater? 

Freshwater is categorized as Blue Water and is considered freely available water in which no or only very small percentages of salts (salinity of less than 0.1 percent) are dissolved, regardless of their physical state. The share of freshwater on earth is very small at 2.6 to 3.5% compared to the general occurrence of water. The saltwater of the oceans dominates. A big proportion of the global freshwater supply is ice-bound in the form of glaciers and the ice of the polar ice caps or is present as fossil groundwater (Neuer Schmutz in altem Wasser – Fossiles Grundwasser enthält Verunreinigungen, 2017).

In order to understand how much water is being used to produce paper, let us take a look into the way paper is being made traditionally

To make paper manually, the production involves a so-called “furnish”, which is a dilute mix of fibers in water. This furnish consists of wood that has been softened enough to be mixed with water. This mixture is sifted through a screen fitted with a delicate mesh that catches the fibers (Patt et al., 2000). The water is then removed by pressing the mesh. The last step is the drying and cutting of the paper. Notably, this core process has not changed since the beginning of papermaking. Big-scale paper manufacturers, commonly used tree species are spruce and pine due to their strong and elastic fibers. The classic mechanical process involves the treatment of the raw materials, conversion of wood chips into pulp, washing, and bleaching of the fiber, refining, and beating. The last steps are the sizing and coloration of the fibers (Hiziroglu, n.d.). Paper now is mainly a mass product which is being produces in big-scale pulp and paper mills.

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What happens to water when it enters a pulp- and paper mill? 

When the water is diverted from the river, it is first channeled through several grates to remove larger debris such as branches. In the next step, chemicals are added to the water to dissolve small particles. More chemicals are added to adjust the pH. The water is then filtered through sand. The water in a pulp and paper mill has several uses. It washes and transports the pulp and other raw materials, and dilutes and prepares the chemicals used to color or otherwise treat the paper and pulp. Some of the water is also used to generate steam and electricity or to cool and wash equipment. Modern factories can reuse water up to ten times. Once the water is no longer reusable, 90% of the time it is fed back into the lakes or rivers. Before this can happen, the water must be cleaned of chemicals. As a rule, every facility has regulations and standards that state the quality of the water that must be transferred. This process is usually divided into two parts. In the first step, coarse particles are removed, in the second step, organisms that can be dangerous to the organisms in the rivers are removed (Domtar, 2018). 

As demonstrated, water is an integral part of the paper-making process

But how does the paper industry actually affect freshwater?

Gülfer Ergin via Unsplash.    

As previously described and demonstrated, paper and pulp mills need a constant supply of big entities of water. Therefore it is logical that factories are typically located near large amounts of water, especially next to rivers which are categorized as Freshwater. An example of this: in the US state of Maine in 2010, all 11 production sites were in the immediate vicinity of rivers or lakes. (Rubin, 2008). What effect does this have on the freshwater entities these mills are located next to? 

The industry uses more than 10% of all freshwater consumed by some nations and is the cause of water pollution. In certain areas of the world, the paper industry is responsible for the release of toxic pollutants like mercury, lead, and pesticides into bodies of water. That polluted water leads to ingestion by locals, which therefore leads to health problems. Trade-in access to fresh water has led to conflicts in the past, as illustrated by an example from 2006: when the Uruguayan government allowed a paper manufacturer from Finland to build a factory that produces pulp next to the Uruguay river, with waste waters being disposed of in the river. This caused a conflict with the neighbor country of Argentina, which proceeded to take the Uruguayan government to the International Court of Justice in The Hague because Uruguay failed to notify the other government about the potential pollution from the pulp mill. The ICJ ruled that the mill will not be closed, even though Uruguay did fail to inform Argentina about the potential pollution (Haggith et al., 2018).

In theory, measures like treating the water enough to return it to freshwater sources without harming the entities sound sufficient. However, it must be noted that the description of this process is of a modern facility with high standards within the United States. There are an estimated 10,000 active pulp and paper mills worldwide. A big number of these are located in areas of the world where such recycling measures are not mandated by the government, so wastewater is returned mostly unfiltered to freshwater sources such as rivers and lakes. Like all pollutions, the improper disposal of polluted, unfiltered sewage has negative impacts on the affected freshwater entity. A study from India showed how this affects the water and the closest consumers who depend on the freshwater entities. First and foremost, the improper disposal of wastewater from production affects the water quality. The wastewater itself discolors the fresh water, which then becomes cloudier, which also triggers the blanketing of the rivers and lakes. Here, the wastewater particles, mostly contaminated with foreign substances, settle on the river bed, so that, for example, the photosynthesis of the aquatic plants is also prevented. 

Another area affected by freshwater contamination from pulp and paper mills is land quality. Due to the chemicals used, magnesium, sulfur or even sodium chloride gets into the freshwater that irrigates the fields. This affects the salinity of the earth and destroys its structure. This subsequently leads to reduced growth of the plants. Other effects are the increase in the pH value of the soil, the growing imbalance of micro and macronutrients in the soil, or the negative impact on microbial activities (Singh et al., 2019).

Effluents discharged from paper mills often contain hydrogen sulfides, methyl mercaptan, sulfur, or chlorine dioxide which, if ingested, can cause respiratory diseases, skin irritation, and heart problems. Furthermore, headaches and nausea were found in affected residents. The fish population also suffers from the chemicals and metals in the water. Various resident fish species in the rivers studied showed a reduction in growth. Other problems such as delayed sexual age, reduced sex drive, and a glow in some fish have been linked to freshwater contaminated with sewage (Singh and Chandra, 2019).


Even though the use of Freshwater is still below the boundary set by Steffen et al., this research and paper demonstrate, that there is a significant correlation between the paper- and literature industry and the rising use and mistreatment of freshwater. Freshwater is vital for the paper industry since it is being used in big quantities throughout the whole production process. In certain areas of the world, production sites are not obligated to clean their sewage, therefore feeding it back into freshwater entities like lakes and rivers and therefore damaging the whole ecosystem in these areas.

The art of making paper has not changed in the biggest parts, it has only been reshaped for mass production. The global paper and pulp industry are in need of a reset and detox since production is environmentally challenging. Technologies such as flash condensing steam or DryPulp are innovative approaches toward a water-reducing or even waterless production of paper (Haggith et al., 2018). Radical innovation will be needed to revolutionize the Paper Industry to be more sustainable and gentle on our resources in order for us to not exceed the planetary boundary for Freshwater Use in the future.

The Planetary Boundaries by Steffen et al., 2015.


This essay shows the connection between Freshwater Usage and the Paper and Literature industry with a focus on the production of pulp, which is the basis of paper. The methodology used was literary research of papers and studies that address the impact of the industry on freshwater entities.


Haggith, M., Kinsella, S., Baffoni, S., Anderson, P., Ford, J., Leithe, R., Neyroumande, E., Murtha, N., Tinhout, B., Smith, D., Miettenin, O., Axelrod, J., Porter, B., Noelle, M., Porter, K., Langer, V., Wieting, J., Blacksmith, S. and Van Der Mark, M. (2018). The State of the Global Paper Industry. [online] pp.30–32. Available at:

Hiziroglu, S. (n.d.). Basics of Paper Manufacturing. [online] Available at:

KhadiPapers (2012). Papermaking at Khadi Papers India. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Jul. 2022].

Neuer Schmutz in altem Wasser – Fossiles Grundwasser enthält Verunreinigungen, (2017). 27 Apr. Available at: [Accessed 12 May 2022].

Patt, R., Holik, H., Hamm, U., Rohmann, M.E., Mummenhoff, P., Petermann, E., Miller, R.F., Frank, D., Wilken, R., Baumgarten, H.L. and Rentrop, G.-H. (2005). Paper and Pulp. In: Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, 6th ed. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH. doi:10.1002/14356007.a18_545.

Publishers Weekly (2022). U.S. print book sales 2020. [online] Statista. Available at: [Accessed 23 Mar. 2021].

Richard, L. (2015). The big question: are books getting longer? [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 25 Jun. 2022].

Rubin, J. (2008). Maine Bioproducts Business Pathways. [Online Image] Research Gate. Available at: [Accessed 29 Jun. 2022].

Schyns, J.F., Booij, M.J. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2017). The water footprint of wood for lumber, pulp, paper, fuel and firewood. Advances in Water Resources, 107, pp.490–501. doi:10.1016/j.advwatres.2017.05.013.

Singh, A.K. and Chandra, R. (2019). Pollutants released from the pulp paper industry: Aquatic toxicity and their health hazards. Aquatic Toxicology, 211, pp.202–216. doi:10.1016/j.aquatox.2019.04.007.

Singh, P., Srivastava, N., Jagadish, R. and Upadhyay, A. (2019). Effect of Toxic Pollutants from Pulp & Paper Mill on Water and Soil Quality and its Remediation. International Journal of Lakes and Rivers, [online] 12(1), pp.5–9. Available at:

Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S.E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E.M., Biggs, R., Carpenter, S.R., de Vries, W., de Wit, C.A., Folke, C., Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Mace, G.M., Persson, L.M., Ramanathan, V., Reyers, B. and Sörlin, S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, [online] 347(6223). doi:10.1126/science.1259855.