Who Needs Paper?

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Apologies to the Dunder Mifflin Co., but paper is starting to irk me. I'm trying to be more conscious of my use of it, and to that end recently eschewed my subscription to the LA Times in favor of reading the paper online (not as fun, but not as inky, either) and I traded my inefficient old inkjet in for a monochrome laser printer that can print on both sides of the page. I even started buying paper towels and toilet paper made from recycled paper (which are like 25% more expensive, and I still don't understand why). But I realized that the little lazy environmentally-conscious voice inside me didn't really know the facts -- is paper really that bad? -- so I decided to do a little research. Here's what I found out.

5.jpg35% of material in landfills is paper, more than any other type of post-consumer waste, and it's also the easiest trash to recycle. And the amount of paper we use in the U.S. is only getting higher; in 2006 we threw away 85 million tons, a threefold increase from 1960. Most people are good about recycling newspapers -- only about 12% of them end up in landfills -- but things like office paper (44% trashed), magazines (59%) and phone books (81%) don't get recycled as often, so represent much of the paper in landfills. About half of all paper produced for consumption in the U.S. is kept out of landfills -- but we've still got a ways to go on that front.

Reducing the amount of paper that goes to landfills also has another environmental benefit: that means less paper is burned in trash combustors, reducing air emissions, and there's less material in landfills breaking down organically, which releases methane into the atmosphere, a powerful greenhouse gas. (This methane can sometimes be trapped and used as an energy source -- but only sometimes.)

But what about "saving trees," the mantra you hear paper-recyclers constantly repeating? Turns out that about 35% of the trees felled each year go to paper production, or about 4 billion trees. Fortunately, much of this comes from tree farms that re-plant trees after they're felled, though nothing can replace the old-growth forests which are still going under the axe to make toilet paper and phone books.

Paper alternatives
Just as we're finding alternatives to traditional fuels, we're also finding alternatives to traditional paper. Some paper makers have turned to something called "agri-pulp" as an alternative, which is wheat, oat, barley and other crop stalks left over after harvesting. Combined with recycled paper and other fillers, some paper makers are finding that agri-pulp paper makes fine stationery. Hemp has also proven a good replacement for wood pulp, though it's still bafflingly illegal to grow hemp in the U.S. There are other paper alternatives out there, too, but one of the major hurdles to embracing these new technologies is the cost of transforming traditional paper mills, most of which are only set up to process trees. At a cost of tens of millions of dollars per mill, they'll need some serious economic (or regulatory) incentive to make the switch.

Here are some more fun paper facts, via ecology.com:
"¢ The first paper merchant in America was Benjamin Franklin, who helped to start 18 paper mills in Virginia and surrounding areas.

"¢ Wood pulp is found in rayon material, laundry detergent, camera film, tires, and transmission belts.

"¢ The trees used to make paper in the United States come mostly from softwood forests-mostly pine-in the South and West.

"¢ In 1883 Philadelphia resident Charles Stillwell invented a machine to make brown paper bags so folks would have something to carry their groceries home in. Today more than 20 million paper bags are used annually in supermarkets throughout the country.

"¢ There are 747 million acres of forest land in the United States.

"¢ In 1998, over 1.6 billion tree seedlings were planted in the United States.

June 2, 2008 - 7:00am
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