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Earth Day

As promised, cut for those readers who do not wish to read it.

This Earth Day, I would like to take a moment to examine one of the staples of green living: Recycling. 

Glass, plastic, metal, electronics... all wonderful things to recycle.  In fact, almost anything that can be recycled should be.  Recycled aluminum, for example, take much less energy and resources to produce.  Recycling glass and plastic cuts down on air and water pollution by staggering amounts. 

What about paper?  We are taught by rote to recycle paper and never question why.  Some time ago I learned to think for myself and not take what the "grown-ups" say on faith.  So I did some research.  Let's look at a few bits of evidence.

Energy Conservation:

Does recycling paper really conserve resources?  The answer is not nearly as clear as many would have you believe.  On the one hand, the EIA claims that Paper recycling uses 40% less energy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_recycling), but there are critics who believe that, once one factors in the energy cost of collection and processing, the pendulum swings the other way (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recycling_criticism). 

Moreover, it is fairly commonly believed that a recycling mill uses more fossil fuels than a paper mill (http://green.wikia.com/wiki/Paper_recycling), and produces a high amount of sludge waste. 

"Save the Trees:" 

Does recycling paper help save the trees?  Well, sort of. 

"Paper recycling does mean fewer trees are used to make paper, but all-new paper is almost always made from trees specifically grown for papermaking. A tree harvested for papermaking is soon replaced by another, so the cycle continues. 'We are not talking about the rain forest or old growth in the Pacific Northwest,' says Champion Paper’s Martin Blick. 'Most of the trees cut for paper come from fifth or sixth generation pulp-wood forests.'"

Landfill space:

This is a legitimate concern, since paper waste takes up a sizeable amount of space in a landfill.  However, once we consider that paper is generally 80%+ biodegradable (more than most of the things we toss out), it seems like that space is not being wasted. 

Conclusion:

After doing my research, it seems like we are looking at a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" kind of situation.  Neither option is environmentally neutral, and there is a great deal of controversy as to whether or not paper recycling is actually the lesser of the two evils. 

For myself, I'll keep putting my paper in the trash until a more efficient method of recycling is developed.  Does this mean you shouldn't recycle paper?  Certainly not.  Like I said, neither option is particularly pleasing to the environmentalist in me.  Do whichever makes sense to you.

What I really want, in my perfect world, is to see some strides in the paper recycling industry making the whole process less costly and wasteful.  Who knows?  Maybe one of us Sonoma State types will be the one to solve this dilemma. 

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
stave
Apr. 23rd, 2009 10:32 pm (UTC)
Have you ever seen the Penn & Teller "Bullshit" episode about recycling? It brought up the very issue of saving trees, with the point that there are now forests of trees dedicated solely for paper production. One thing I don't really remember is if they addressed whether or not ANY paper comes from the rain forest or old growth you mentioned.

I think in the meantime, composting paper is the way to go. Not that I do so myself (can't really have a compost pile in a condo complex), but it keeps paper out of landfills, where it doesn't biodegrade to to the lack of oxygen caused by compacting it with heaps of other trash.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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