Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Does Using Paper Kill Trees?

If you receive any bills by mail, you have probably received the message that "Paper Kills Trees." If so, you are the target of a marketing campaign by NACHA, The Electronics Payment Association. In their efforts to convince people to receive and pay bills electronically, they found that the message, "Paper Kills Trees," was a strong motivator to switch to electronic bill pay. Although a large part of the public believes this message, it is far from accurate.

In understanding the environmental impact of any product or service, it is necessary to delve into the upstream and downstream impacts. In the case of paper made from wood pulp, the source of the product is trees, a 100% renewable resource. The demand for paper and other wood products insures that forests remain valuable - as forests. And in fact, the Society of American Foresters reports that forested lands in the U.S. increased by 49% from 1953 to 2006. Every year, private landowners plant 3 to 4 times as many trees as they harvest. Using paper and other wood products provides an income from these forested lands which is an economic incentive to maintain and manage them. Without this income, there is an economic incentive to convert the forests to farmland for more valuable crops or to sell it for development.

In contrast, electronic devices require minerals, metals, plastics, hydrocarbon solvents and other non-renewable resources to produce. Some of these resources are classified as "conflict metals" and their use from the Congo requires reporting to the U.S. government.

Approximately 89% of the electricity in the U.S. comes from non-renewable fossil fuels. But paper in the U.S. is made with about 60% renewable energy. Printed products have a one time carbon footprint. But electronic devices and data centers require a constant supply of electricity. Many of these centers are located where power comes from coal, some of which may be supplied through mountain top removal mining, with devastating ecological consequences.

Paper is totally recyclable and some 63.5% of all paper used in North America is recovered for recycling. In contrast, only 13.6% of electronic waste is recycled. The bulk of electronic waste is shipped overseas to be dismantled, often by processes that are unsafe for workers and surrounding communities. Some of it is burned to recover metals.

In ecological terms, using paper does not "kill" trees. Of course, there are environmental impacts from both electronic media and paper. The impacts from paper can be, and are being, reduced and minimized. An informed public can further reduce these impacts, as they can with electronic media as well. Misleading or oversimplified marketing slogans are not going to help in that effort.


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