While some still don’t care or believe that we have much to do with the state of our environment, more and more people are becoming more conscious of our impact on the world. Reducing waste by using more environmentally friendly products is one small step with big results when practiced consistently and hopefully by many. For example, giving up on the convenience of disposable paper products will reduce waste and lower our energy expenditure.
To produce paper, trees need to be cut, debarked, and chipped. The chips must then be pulped, a process that separates the cellulose from the semi-cellulose, and removes resins and tree oils. This can be done chemically (Kraft) or mechanically. Wood chips are either cooked in sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide (Kraft) or forced against a grinding stone or rotating metal disks (mechanical) to produce the pulp. If the chips are pre-steamed they go through a chemo-thermo mechanical pulping where they are soaked with sulfur-based chemicals. The remaining product is then bleached with chlorine gas (Kraft) or peroxide (mechanical), and mixed with water and minerals. The water is then drained, the paper is pressed between two rollers, dried, a press coating of starch and minerals is applied, the paper is dried again, and the paper is finally wound into rolls.
Heating, pumping, and drying the wood fiber uses large quantities of energy. This is not even considering the impact of the loss of the trees, transporting costs of trees and paper, or the pollution caused by the process. Pressure to minimize energy costs is leading to changes in the industry. For example, factories could reduce the use of fossil fuels by increasing alternative sources of energy and reduce pollution by practicing CO2 sequestration, the capture and storage of CO2. Increasing the efficiency of paper mills would also help not only with the environment but also with their bottom line. For example new paper mills use 40% less steam and 5% less electricity than older mills. It is estimated that one ton of paper requires the use of 200 tons of water; reducing this number would further reduce waste of this precious substance.
Recycling paper plants seem to be more efficient. When recycled paper is collected locally, manufactured nearby, and then also sold locally, the environmental impact is 85% lower than when the paper is virgin and imported. This is because it uses less than half the energy to produce, saves trees, and is better than burning wasted paper. In addition, analysis shows that one ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees, 2.3 cubic meters of landfill space, and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by around one ton per year. These numbers may not seem impressive to some, but they become so when considering how many tons of paper we use and waste very day, month after month, year after year. Furthermore, is it suggested that every 1000 ton of recycled paper creates 12 jobs.
It is true that as far as being green goes, paper is certainly better than plastic. Countries like China have banned the use of plastic bags cutting demand by 40 million bags and saved 1.6 million tons of petroleum. In our country, San Francisco is the only major city to have banned plastic bags and opted for paper or the all-natural biodegradable cornstarch-based plastic. Cornstarch bags are biodegradable like paper but do not require trees and do not damage ecosystems like plastic does.
So while we’ve stepped in the right direction by using paper over plastic, our love of convenience and tendency to waste has led to an increased demand for paper products and more deforestation. Americans go through about five billion paper bags each year. Just because we are making a better choice of what to waste, doesn’t make the waste any easier on the environment.
Paper bags, coffee mugs, paper towels, disposable plates and cups, sticky notes, reams of paper wasted on discarded reports in millions of offices, junk mail, etc., is making our overuse of paper a serious environmental problem. We must be willing to part with some of the small conveniences to reduce the amount of waste we produce. Lowering our need for these products will reduce the numbers that need to be manufactured. This will reduce the amount of energy used by the factories, lower the amount of pollution emitted, lower landfill areas (paper still needs to degrade), etc.
What will the companies do with the less demand? What about their employees? They can start making reusable coffee mugs and corn starch plastic bags. Progress is never easy but we can do it.
2. Nigel, J. (May, 2004) What tomorrow may bring: Energy futures for paper and board: Pulp & Paper International Pulp & Paper International
3. Anonymous. Earth Talk: n/a. Westport: Earth Action Network, Inc. (Apr 11, 2010)
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