A Pragmatic Prescription for Paper

Though paper is more recycled than glass, aluminum, or plastic, it is still also the largest portion of the waste stream, at about 35% and 85 million tons. Each year, 67 million tons of paper are used in the U.S.--700 pounds per person per year and twice as much as in 1960--and paper production has been projected to increase by more than 75% by 2020. Recycling is very beneficial in terms of saving resources and space in landfills (recycling 1 ton of office paper saves almost 6 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, 2 tons of wood, and 3 cubic meters of landfill space). In general, recycling paper creates 35% less water pollution and 74% less air pollution than disposing of it as waste.

Unfortunately, unlike aluminum and glass, paper is very limited in how many times it can be recycled. Estimates vary, but the general consensus is that paper products can be recycled only 3-7 times before breaking down. This means that it is especially important to reduce the amount of paper we use and discard, in addition to improving recycling rates.

One simple way to reduce paper use is to switch to online bill paying. Each year, 405,000 trees are used to send America its bills. If each household viewed and paid these bills online, more than 29 trillion BTUs of energy, 1.7 billion pounds of waste, and 2.1 million tons of greenhouse gases would be saved. Using online bill viewing and paying is usually simple to do, since companies are most likely already trying to get you to switch for their own benefit. Some may even offer you some sort of discount when you sign up. In addition to online bill paying, consider online banking and direct deposit to avoid paper statements and trips to the bank.

There are also many opportunities to make paper last longer before its trip to the recycling center. When printing long documents for your own use, consider using smaller margins and font sizes and single spacing to conserve space. Print on both sides of the page whenever possible, whether it be double-sided printing from the get-go, or using the second side of used pages later on. And, only print what you need. If shredding old papers is part of your routine, consider using the shreds as packing material (much more earth-friendly than styrofoam!). Old paper can also be used in a variety of other ways, from wrapping presents to composting, from litterbox liners to shoe trees.

In addition to reducing paper use, it is also important to buy recycled. Buying recycled paper both saves natural resources and stimulates the recycling industry. When buying paper, look on the label for symbols telling you the recycled content of the paper. One ton of 30% postconsumer paper saves about 7 trees, 2,100 gallons of water, 1,230 kw hours of electricity, and 18 pounds of air pollution. Meanwhile, one ton of 100% postconsumer paper saves 24 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, 4,100 kw hours of electricity, and 60 pounds of air pollution, according to Conservatree. In addition to the amount of recycled fibers, labels may also show endorsements by the Forest Stewardship Council (paper from sustainably harvested forests) and/or Green Seal (certified green products), and whether or not the paper was processed using chlorine. The National Wildlife Federation offers resources on choosing the best papers at their website, http://www.nwf.org/paper.

There are, of course, many other ways to conserve paper, from reducing your junk mail and catalogs to saying no to receipts (though this option is not as widespread as it should be). Also consider whether paper that is useless to you may be of use to someone else - old construction paper may be welcomed at a school, old books and magazines at the library for a booksale, or at Goodwill or the Salvation Army, etc. And don't forget that you can recycle a wide variety of paper in Lakewood: books, boxboard, cardboard, catalogs, magazines, envelopes, junk mail, newspaper, office/computer/school paper, and telephone books.

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Volume 4, Issue 7, Posted 2:28 PM, 03.21.2008