The Truth About Recycled Paper

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How do you put a price tag on the environment? The ongoing oil fiasco in the gulf serves to highlight our need for sustainability into the future. Beyond this immediate problem, the world’s population is expected to reach 11 billion by 2100. Our impact on the environment will undoubtedly increase exponentially. You may not believe the more extreme doom and gloom forecasts, but thinking people cannot deny the need to plan ahead in order to attempt to maintain quality of life into the future.

There are many aspects to sustainability. While it clearly goes beyond economics, we cannot ignore economics. Here we will focus on use of recycled papers and some facts and myths which surround them.

Some interesting facts:

About 300 million tons of paper each year is consumed annually worldwide. The US consumes about 30% of all paper produced. Americans use about 680 pounds of paper per person – over 2 billion trees per year. Approximately 1 billion trees worth of paper are thrown away every year in the U.S. A ton of recycled paper saves not only trees, but approximately three cubic yards of landfill space. Burning the paper made from that average tree, which is what might happen if it weren’t recycled, would release about 88 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Paper manufacturing is the third largest user of fossil fuels worldwideand one of the worst polluters. Making one ton of paper emits more than 1.5 tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), in addition to consuming other resources, according to the AFPA.

How many trees can we save by using recycled paper? We like answers to be easy, but the real answer is ‘it depends. Obviously, trees differ greatly in size, hence how much paper would be produced. Also important is that the amount of pulp in a softwood tree is not the same as a hardwood. Furthermore, paper producing processes vary considerably in efficiency.

One calculation, based on a mixture of softwoods and hardwoods 40 feet tall and 6-8 inches in diameter, is that it would take a rough average of 24 trees to produce a ton of printing and writing paper, using a chemical pulping process.

Let’s look at a semi-myth: There are more trees in America today than there were 70 years ago. While this statement may be true, it fails to consider some pretty important facts.

Using the Douglas Fir forests throughout the Northwest as an example, the average size of a tree 70 years ago might have been 48″ in diameter -possibly bigger, today under 20″. Trees harvested primarily for paper pulp are generally 10″ and smaller.


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