Paper is ubiquitous in the modern era. From magazines and tissue paper to packaging and mail, paper products enable society to produce, communicate and consume at historical levels.
In the long run, however, this unchecked exploitation has created another, inexorable ubiquity—paper trash. The bowels of a typical U.S. landfill reflect the steep growth in pulp and fiber extraction, manufacture and paper-based waste that has characterized the last century.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources / CC BY-ND 2.0
In fact, the largest category of solid waste in landfills—around 40 percent—is paper. Yet, paper is highly compostable. It is also one of the easiest materials to recover for reutilization. So, why is there so much paper waste in American landfills?
Part of the answer lies in the simple fact that Americans throw away more paper than any other material. Progress has been made in that most paper is now recycled, but nearly 70 million tons of what might have been a rich source of fiber for new products are still discarded annually without regard for the economic and environmental cost of such practices. The total amount of discarded wood and paper each year would be sufficient to heat 50 million homes for two decades.
Why Recycle Paper?
Trees—the natural resources underlying all this paperwork—have long subsidized our reliable access to receipts, paper towels, books and many other modern amenities. Today, U.S. companies collectively fax the equivalent of 17 million trees annually. Each Sunday’s round of newspapers demands half a million trees.
For tree byproducts left unrecycled, the landfill provides a final resting place for solid wastes to break down into gaseous toxins, helping to make these garbage pits the single largest U.S. contributor to pollution from methane—a greenhouse gas (GHG) twenty times more harmful than carbon dioxide. Choosing to recycle paper that would otherwise fester in slow-decaying dumps is one important way to mitigate the impacts of GHG-driven climate change.
Efficiency Leads to Sustainability
While recovered paper is not infinitely renewable, it is a step in the direction of sustainability. Now that a majority of U.S. residents have access to local or curbside recycling, putting used paper back into the fiber cycle is more convenient than ever. Doing so has also never been more important as it becomes a matter of survival to preserve the environmental resources we have left.
Recycled paper product is extraordinarily conducive to resource efficiency. Each ton of recovered timber, paper and forest commodities requires two-thirds less crude oil and half as much water to manufacture. Ultimately, the same ton will emit just one-quarter of the air pollution that virgin forest fiber does.
One ton approximately corresponds to the amount of solid waste accumulated by one American in a year. Multiplied on a community scale, this built-in efficiency quickly adds up in favor of both budgets and the environment.
American landfills are premature graveyards for the nation’s unrecycled resources. Abandoned to waste, their contents decompose at a painfully slow rate, all the while releasing large amounts of poisonous greenhouse gases into the environment. Making a habit of redirecting spent paper back into production via regular recycling is the key to ensuring today’s leftover napkins and newspapers don’t become tomorrow’s irreparable ecological crisis.
Article written by Jet Russell. Jet is a constant contributor to the guest posting atmosphere and enjoys writing on a wide variety of topics including solid waste.