The Hidden Cost Of Our Christmas Cards & Crackers

By Yuanchao Xu 18 December, 2019

Christmas cards always mean well but how resource-intensive are they? CWR's Xu deep explores

An A-4 sheet of paper requires around 2-13L of water to produce, meaning global paper production requires 800bn tonnes of water - this is more water than the whole of China used in 2018
Beyond water consumption, nearly every process of paper production generates different types of waste such as wastewater, waste gas & solid waste
China is both the biggest producer & user yet as its consumption per capita (78kg) is still lower than US & Europe, there is a potential increase in the long run. Can this trend be sustained?

Christmas is coming. Soon there will be a pile of Christmas cards sending greetings everywhere and people pulling crackers around the dinner table. These Christmas staples may be cheap in price, but they are expensive in terms of ecological resources with a large amount of deforestation and water consumption hidden behind them.

Not just high water consumption – also a lot of waste

According to Prof. Arjen Hoekstra, the “father of water footprint”, an A-4 sheet of printing and writing paper requires around 2-13 litres of water to produce. For fancy Christmas cards, this number could be even higher. A person drinks only 2 litres of water every day but unknowingly consumes a lot more by using paper.

The global paper industry uses more water than all of China

In 2017, global paper consumption reached 411mn tonnes. The water use behind this is estimated to be around 800bn tonnes, even larger than China’s overall water consumption (around 600bn tonnes) in 2018. Apart from water consumption, there are also different types of waste being generated during almost every procedure of paper-making as shown below.

An A-4 sheet of printing & writing paper requires around 2-13 litres of water to produce…

…also, paper-making generates various types of waste

So, for dirty and thirsty paper, what is the market size and who takes the largest share?

The global paper industry

The charts below show global paper production and consumption from 2013-2017. In this period, China was both the biggest producer and user of paper, accounting for about a quarter of both production and consumption. There is a 25% probability that the paper you are writing on comes from China. Moreover, unlike developed regions like the US and Europe where production and consumption have been stable, China’s numbers are still growing slightly.

In terms of paper consumption per capita, the average Chinese person used 78kg in 2017, higher than the global average but much lower than the US and Europe, which indicates a potential increase of paper consumption in the long run.

China is the biggest producer & user of paper…

…yet as its paper consumption per capita (78kg) is still lower than US & Europe, there is still a potential increase in the long run

Although electronic cards have become more and more popular, paper cards still have irreplaceable meaning for many households especially for Americans. According to the Greeting Card Association, 90% of US households buy at least one greeting card per year, and on average a household purchases 30 individual cards per year. Is China ready for this trend to go on? More analysis on China’s sustainable measures in this industry will be conducted in the future so stay tuned.


Further Reading

  • Unwrapping Packaging Water Risks – China’s paper packaging industry discharges wastewater similar to its entire coal industry. Explore the dirty secrets behind paper & plastic packaging with China Water Risk’s Feng Hu. Also, see how shifting consumer attitudes can bring about new innovations
  • Are You A Responsible Consumer? -With waste levels already sky high and set to grow, China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor mulls over the challenges of being a responsible consumer from fashion to food to plastic. Whether as an individual or corporate, see what action you can take
  • Capital Two Zones: Protecting Beijing’s Upper Watershed – The Capital Two Zones plan is set to protect Zhangjiakou, upstream of water stressed Beijing & host of the 2022 Winter Olympics – how will this impact industry and development? China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu explores
  • Blue City Water Quality Index – Building on their successful Blue Map mobile app, IPE takes it up another notch with the new Blue City Water Quality Map. Hear from their Shen Sunan on which cities are leading and which are lagging

More on Christmas

  • More Bad Climate News This Christmas – Want to stay in blissful ignorance this festive season? If not, get your head out of the sand to receive a quick dose of “real news” on our climate future
  • More Green, More Money? – Companies’ participation is vital to combat climate & water risks – what if they can access to more capital at the same time? CWR’s Ronald Leung illustrates the secret lies in active investor engagement
  • Sustainable Fashion Today: A Sweet But Short High – 2019 has been a busy year for sustainable fashion but with sweet but short highs as CWR’s Dawn McGregor highlights. Given fashion’s huge climate impact, McGregor laments the need for more strategic solutions
  • Think Before You Bake! – Mince pies, gingerbread men, Christmas pudding… all delicious Christmas foods! Yet, did you know baking them is highly water-intensive? Our Dharisha Mirando ponders and asks us to rethink our recipes
  • Pets – Cute But Are They Green? – Did you know that the water footprint of a golden retriever’s diet is 80% that of a China diet? CWR’s dog lover Chien Tat Low explores the environmental impacts of rising pet ownership

Yuanchao Xu
Author: Yuanchao Xu
Yuanchao uses his analytical proficiencies towards the assessment and visualization of water risks for China Water Risk. Prior to joining, Yuanchao was based in Europe completing the Erasmus Mundus Master Program where he specialsed in hydro-informatics and water management. He applied his skills in climate forecasting and water resource modelling to the EUPORIAS project with DHI (Danish Hydraulic Institute) which resulted in a conference paper on seasonal climate forecasting. Building on this work, he went on to develop hyfo, an open-source R programme for climate scientists and modellers to analyse and visualize data. Yuanchao’s bachelor degree was from the China Agricultural University where he specialized in heat energy and power engineering. During his time there, he also patented a testing instrument for hydraulic machinery. He has studied and worked in Beijing, Nice, Newcastle and Copenhagen.
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