I never knew paper could wreak so much havoc

Despite paper's usefulness, there is a dark mystery lurking around its production

It's hard to believe that something as innocuous as a paper is sabotaging exotic habitats, pristine rainforests, limited freshwater reserves and our very own existence.

2010 report by Worldwatch Institute highlighted that a typical U.S. paper mill used 0.9–1.2 tons of coal and about 35–50 tons of water per ton of pulp (approximately 324 L of water is used to produce 1 Kg of paper.) If this data is consolidated for over 500 active US energy guzzling paper mills, one can imagine the insensitivity people have befallen into.

Because tree protection is a part of the climate change solution, it is unsustainable for humans to cut trees at a disproportional rate. 

We would be fooling ourselves to only blame paper mills for this mess. For example, an adult in the U.S., on average, uses over 20,000 sheets of toilet paper a year, and in order to produce one ton of paper towels, a whopping 17 trees are cut down and 20,000 gallons of water is consumed. 

Techsoup’s Greentech Initiative reports that faxing alone consumes 210 billion sheets of paper in U.S. companies every year. A single US office worker gobbles up 10,000 sheets of paper per year and shockingly 95 percent of this paper eventually gets thrown away unrecycled to landfills. Shame on us!

With a student enrollment of 71,946 at ASU in fall 2016, the numbers are discouraging in terms of sustainability standards. 

“Financial Year ‘16 printing device spending is approx. $3 million (includes purchases, rentals, service/ supplies, software, copy center, scanning, classrooms and labs, etc.) Paper usage at ASU for FY 16 reams of paper (all recycled) is 84,423 (approx. $371K),”  Jim Dwyer, director at Auxiliary Business Services for ASU Business & Finance, said in an email. 

One ream of paper has 500 sheets and weighs 20 pounds, so in total, these 84,423 reams weigh 844 tons. Now just imagine, what if we were paper-free — we would have been prudently utilizing those million dollars for the scholarships, infrastructure and better technology.  

Having said that, the advocates of forest protection, ethical business leaders and policy makers for sustainability practices have been wise to encourage recycling, non-wood fabrics and tree plantation by industries . 

As Worldwatch Institute research suggests, paper recycling is helping to reduce energy use and pollution. Optimistically, the report noted, "Recycled paper requires 60 percent less energy and 80 percent less water to produce than virgin paper, and it generates 95 percent less air pollution. Recycling one ton of paper on average saves 26,500 liters of water, about 318 liters of oil and 4,100 kilowatt-hours of electricity." That’s very encouraging indeed. 

“In the greater United States, a lot of the pulp comes off the land that is owned by paper companies ... (In Maine), there's a huge private land holding up there that’s all paper and they have enough property to harvest timber in what you would call a sustainable fashion. I don’t think in the U.S., anyway, you would see what you would call deforestation for paper, because there are a lot of regulations in place,” said Bill Boyd, the public affairs and legislative officer for Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. 

The ASU sustainability practices team shared the following infographic to demonstrate ASU’s strong commitment to paper recycling and sustainability measures.

Courtesy of ASU

The infographic analysis shows that ASU has far outpaced its peers in reducing total paper usage per user by 64 percent through 2007-16 and that during the same timeline, it has succeeded in using recycling paper to almost 100 percent. 

Though the grass looks greener and policies seem rosier, the information could be misleading. Shockingly, in the process of removing ink from newspapers and books to recycle the paper, about 22 percent of the weight of the recycled paper is dumped in sludge into the environment. 

Recycled paper requires going through the bleaching process. Though companies are beginning to adopt a chlorine-free bleaching process, which is good for the environment, not all companies have shown interest. That means, chemicals in the bleaching process are still released into the environment. 

We are ushering in a digital age, but it’s no guarantee for a paper-free age. Paper’s colossal use with diverse applications makes it an eternal benefactor of the consumer market. Unnecessary waste and consumption should be eradicated and eco-friendly ways of tree-free paper production and recycling should be promulgated.

Reach the reporter at rahulverma.asu@gmail.com or follow @Rahul_Sun_V on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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