Paper is one of the most valuable recyclable products and may have been the first recycled product. Out of all the materials that can be recycled, paper is the most thrown out material in the world. The EPA estimates that (as of 2014) 27% of the waste we create is paper products. Out of all recycled products, more paper is recycled (if measured by weight) than all of the glass, plastic, and aluminum combined.
The first forms of paper were initially made with rags of leftover cotton, hemp, or linen. These days around 95% of all paper is made using trees. To make paper from trees, the raw wood needs to be turned into a pulp, which separates the lignin (glue) from the cellulose (fiber).
Depending on the type of paper desired, mechanical pulping is for making weaker, yet cheaper paper, such as newspaper or phone book print. Mechanical pulping requires huge amounts of energy, whereas your office paper and most other paper is made using a chemical process, known as Krafting, but requires much less energy to produce. Krafting does require huge amounts of chemicals to turn raw virgin pulp into paper. The chemicals used to produce paper vary from 200-3,000 and include elemental chlorine, hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide. Paper production is the 6th most industrial polluter of air, soil and water and is responsible for 9% of industrial releases to water in the U.S. In 2015, the pulp and paper sector was ranked first in the amount of toxic weighted pound equivalents (TWPE) discharged to water by industry.(EPA, 2015) Worldwide, the pulp and paper industry is the fifth largest consumer of energy.
Using 100% recycled paper uses 60% less energy, 53% less water and emits 40% less greenhouse emissions (Green America.org) Recycling one ton of paper can save 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, 380 gallons of oil, 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space and 4,000 kilowatts of energy-enough to power the average U.S. home for six months- and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one metric ton of carbon equivalent (MTCE). (EPA)
Obviously, recycling makes sense; but improper recycling might be a waste of energy and be more polluting at times. The main issue associated with recycling paper is the use of single stream recycling. When recycling products get mixed, all the guck from the unwashed containers leaks and oozes out onto the other mixed products. For glass and metals, that can be washed off. Paper, instead, soaks up all the ooze and becomes contaminated with oils, broken glass, food, ect. This can ruin a batch of paper and make it unusable for recycling, which is extra wasteful than just throwing it out .
Let’s add up the waste. The time wasted to gather the materials, the time spent picking it up and the money and fuel spent to pick it up and drop it off at
the recycling center. Then, count the water to clean and de-ink the paper, which if there is too much contamination, be sure to include the money and time spent to take it to the landfill. This is why single stream recycling has become the bad boy of recycling.
There are plenty of options available as alternatives for tree pulp. Some of those include: Kafani, flax, cotton, hemp, bamboo, banana, tobacco, citrus, coffee bean, bagasse, and recycled fabrics. sugarcane, straws, kenaf, mesta, hemp, abaca, sisal, henequen, jute, ramie, and sunhemp. Some of these have been proven as great alternatives to trees and not only produce as much, if not more, yield per acre. Most require much less energy and chemicals to process into viable paper as well. Keep in mind, that it typically takes around 6-15 years for trees to grow big enough to harvest, whereas, most of these can be harvested once a year, if not multiple times a year.
So, what is the future of paper?
In my view, I see us never cutting down a tree ever again for paper. Instead, we should encourage and even mandate laws that specify no trees getting cut down for paper and to use one of the many options available to us. There should be some subsidies, initially, to transition farmers into growing new crops with the sole purpose of harvesting them for paper production. The paper industry has enough money to transition to other forms of pulp by themselves, but farmers will need help to change their harvest. Ideally, out of the options, I would pick Hemp first, due it’s easy growing, 2-4 harvests a year, the fact that hemp degrades much slower the trees paper, and it can be recycled up to 7 times vs. only 3 times with tree pulp. Additionally, hemp paper requires less toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process and all of the plant can be used for 100’s of other products including plastics, fuels, paints, ink, hempcrete, rope, and textiles.
The next couple of crops to consider would be residue fibers, which are crops already being grown and harvested for other uses. Typically, these crops have excess parts of the plant that currently are not being utilized and instead are either being plowed under or burned. Rice straw, bagasse (sugar cane), wheat straw, and cotton linters are just a few of the crops we already grow and are throwing away up to 50% of the plant. Using residue crops would actually not involve any extra planting, use of pesticides, or clearing of forests and could actually help prevent pollution from farmers burning it.
In the end, it seems obvious to me, as to why the tree made paper may be the wrong route to go. Is it obvious to you? If so, start demanding these other types of paper. Vote with your buying power. It seems to be one of the only ways corporations and politicians alike listen. And remember, everyone laughed when the organic movement happened and in 10 years or so, it’s now mainstream. Don’t depend on anyone else to make it happen. Be the change you want to see.