Research Position – Mike Middleton

Paper: The Savior to a Better Atmosphere

There has always been a great deal of debate on how to improve the cleanliness of the earth’s environment through recycling and reducing emissions into the atmosphere. Improving the quality of the air starts by making industries, manufacturers, and their products more environmentally friendly. Dictionary.com defines eco-friendly, or environmentally friendly, as actions producing minimal [negative] impact on the natural environment. Solar panels are environmentally friendly because they utilize the sun’s renewable resource, in order to produce energy with little to no wasteful by-product. Similarly, both trees and paper can be called environmentally friendly because they aid in displacing carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere. The biggest difference is that trees and paper not only have little negative impact on their environment, but also provide additional benefits by trapping the carbon like a sink hole.

Carbon dioxide is made up of a single carbon atom that has been bonded by two oxygen atoms, otherwise known as CO2 (Carbon Dioxide). Carbon dioxide can come from natural events such as volcanoes or human respiration. Carbon is produced and released into the air as a result of industries burning fossil fuels. While in the air, the carbon can either be bonded with oxygen atoms to form CO2 or it can be absorbed by plants and trees through photosynthesis. Since carbon dioxide is a type of gas which retains the suns’ rays heat in the atmosphere, known as a greenhouse gas, less of it would reduce the effects of global warming (Atmospheric Chemistry of Earth’s Troposphere).

There are a number of ways to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the environment, such as manufacturing and using more paper.  A lot of companies and environmentalists believe that it is important to use less paper and not more because it “…not only saves money, [but] it can also reduce poor practices and inefficiencies…” (Acma, 83). The reason they say using paper is not environmental is because they look at the process to make it and not the end result. It is without question that making paper wastes both water and energy; however, it can be proved that using more paper actually improves the quality of the atmosphere. Paper is able to retain amounts of carbon that it sequestered before it was cut down as a tree. The more paper that is created and used, the more paper that stays in the efficient circle of being recycled and retaining carbon.

The efficient cycle begins with trees, which are known for their purpose of breaking down carbon and releasing oxygen into the air for us to breathe. Trees are necessary to sustain life in our society because they produce a good portion of the air we breathe as a by-product of making energy. Trees produce oxygen by breaking down absorbed carbon.  In other words, having trees in the environment is important for carbon removal. Oddly enough, some trees are not as beneficial to the environment as other trees.

Older trees are less efficient at breaking down carbon than younger trees; so much that “…despite the fact that vegetation has grown in the interim, it has also decayed, with the net effect of there being no sequestration” (NZ Wood).  In order to improve the quality of the atmosphere, old carbon neutral trees can be replaced with younger trees. This tree replacement process begins by cutting down the older decaying trees, bringing them to the mills, and later sending them to be manufactured.  For every older tree that is cut down, a new one is planted in its place. It is difficult to tell exactly what percentage the old trees account for, but they certainly make up for a good portion of the trees that are used to make paper.

In order to make paper, a countless number of trees are cut down which are then brought to lumber mills to be manufactured. Trees serve the primary purpose of breaking down carbon in the environment and producing oxygen as a waste product, thus cutting down these trees would potentially be harmful for the environment. It is true that these trees always have a positive impact towards the atmosphere, but it is also true that some of these trees, particularly the older trees, do not do their job of breaking carbon to oxygen as efficiently as their younger ancestors. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, “…in general, younger and faster growing forests have higher annual sequestration rates”, meaning that older trees are not as efficient. This is due to the fact that as trees age, the rate at which they breakdown carbon changes. A newly planted tree will age and mature gradually raising the amount of carbon it can sequester. Once the tree matures, the rate then begins to fall again until the tree no longer has a beneficial impact on the atmosphere. Since these trees provide a neutral impact on the environment, it would be more effective to cut them down and replace them with younger trees. Those trees that were cut down would be used to make paper while new trees are planted in their place.

Carbon is constantly being sequestered from the air by trees in the environment, and even though they are cut down, the paper they are turned into still holds it. Since carbon dioxide is formed by the bonding of a single carbon atom and two atoms of oxygen, there would essentially be more oxygen in the air after the removal of carbon. For example, if there is a single carbon atom and three oxygen atoms, then the two oxygen atoms would form CO2 with the carbon atom. Though there is only one oxygen atom left, on a much larger scale where that single oxygen atom contributes to the numerous molecules of air people breathe, there is a huge difference in the amount of oxygen. The process of retaining carbon causes the oxygen atoms to stay separated, thus leaving more oxygen in the air to breathe. An article about oxygen lost due to carbon dioxide, written by Mike Johnston, explains that “we are losing three oxygen molecules in our atmosphere for each carbon dioxide molecule that is produced when we burn fossil fuels.”  Paper can aid in reducing the number of oxygen molecules lost in the formation of carbon dioxide by sequestering the carbon. Even though making paper creates carbon dioxide emissions, the carbon that paper withholds can out weigh this amount.

Unfortunately, trees can be cut and manufactured into hundreds of different products which is a major reason for deforestation. Many people in our society could argue that the process of deforestation is not environmentally friendly; though it is not so much the actual process that matters, but rather than the end result. Paper is easily and more commonly recycled than other types of materials, such as plastic or aluminum. According to a study done by the EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, in 2010, paper makes up for more than thirty-three percent of all recyclables collected in the United States factored by weight. Since paper and wood scraps are constantly being reused, less trees have to be cut down. It is also found that only thirty-three percent of materials used to make paper products come from trees and other types of plants. Less than half of the paper we use was made directly from trees that were cut down. This is essential because it indicates that not all trees have to be cut down to make paper, but rather just enough old trees. This also means that more paper is still being put into the economy and it is being done more effectively.

Manufacturing paper can produce a lot of wasted energy and water, as well as release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There are; however, ways to reduce the waste through the EPA’s carbon dioxide capture and sequestration, or CCS, technologies. These technologies exist for the primary function of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that is put into the atmosphere through underground injection and geologic sequestration. The EPA describes these processes as ways to utilize terrestrial and geologic landscapes as storages for the extra CO2 produced during the manufacturing of paper products. This is done by creating injection wells, a series of pipes installed in the ground which allow contents like carbon dioxide to be pumped through and discarded below multiple layers of soil. This is widely beneficially because the harmful CO2, which is normally left to fill the atmosphere, is instead displaced over 7000 feet downward to an injection zone. The injection zone is an area very deep underground that is closed off by an impermeable seal where CO2 can alternatively and safely be deposited. Fossil fuels, which are used in most industrial factories, create CO2 when burned. By using CSS technologies, carbon dioxide emissions can safely be reduced by up to eighty to ninety percent.

The quantity of carbon produced subtracted by the amount of carbon withheld by the paper product it is turned into can be called the net emission. This number shows how efficient paper actually is at removing carbon versus how much is produced during its creation process. Fortunately, “the ‘net’ CO2 locked up in paper – and especially in paper made from virgin fiber in many cases, is more than enough to compensate for the CO2 emitted during the printing process.” The amount of carbon which is taken in and stored in paper outweighs the amount of carbon dioxide produced from creating the paper.  This causes it to have a minimal impact on the environment. Since paper actually can actually hold just as much, if not more carbon then the amount that is produced from making it, manufacturing more paper positively helps improve the atmosphere.

Many people try to do their part to help the environment by recycling paper, and though only about fifty-four percent of all paper is recycled (Keep America Beautiful), this makes up for more than one-third of all recycled materials. On top of this, the amount of paper that is recycled accounts for about thirty-three percent of the sources of materials used to manufacture new paper. This aids in reducing the number of trees that are required to be cut down and manufactured as well as reducing the amount of waste that goes into doing so. Even though “the whole process [of making paper] uses tens of millions of trees per year and generates millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases,” (Acma, 84) it is forgotten that a lot of the trees that are in fact cut down are old and are no longer reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. It is also important to remember that even after the trees are cut down and made into paper products, carbon can still be retained. Freshly cut down trees account for another thirty-three percent of the source of materials used to make paper while the remaining percent comes from wood scraps and other paper materials left over in sawmills (EPA).

All together, there are three main contributing sources to the creation of paper, but it is still important to recycle. Having more paper being put into the recycling process means that less trees will have to be cut down in order to manufacture new paper. This would create a fluent procedure of using less than thirty-three percent of materials coming from trees, those of which are old trees in need of being cut down anyway. This still leaves a large percentage of paper which is not being recycled, but that paper is still serving a purpose towards its environment. Paper is efficient whether it is simply placed in landfills or recycled.

Paper that ends up in landfills and other places of rest for materials, break down relatively slow taking decades and sometimes even centuries. This is beneficial because paper serves as a carbon sink and by staying intact for such a long time, is an effective means of storage. NZ Wood has found that wood and paper disposed in landfills “release no more than three to eight percent of the carbon back into the atmosphere.” This number is very small and shown effective when compared to the neutrality of paper when it is burned. Recycling is even more effective with this knowledge because paper can only be recycled four to six times (Through the Mill) before the virgin fibers are worn down and the paper is no longer recyclable. Paper that is recycled allows less trees to be cut down while paper that has lost its ability to be recycled serve as a carbon sink.

Although young trees and paper products take carbon from the air, there is little harm to the ecosystem. It is important to realize that paper plays a vital role in our economy and daily lives,  so there would be no way to rid the use of paper completely.  The use of paper varies from books to paper cups, and even furniture. Paper, unlike many other types of recyclables, is the easiest and most common material that is recycled in our society. It can be replaced by planting more trees. Members of our society must realize that by using more paper, instead of other materials, will end up helping our environment in the long run. Trees can selectively be cut down to have maximum carbon sequestration. Those trees can be brought to environmentally friendly manufacturers to be made into paper that still retains its carbon. The paper can then be used and then recycled multiple times until it ends up in landfills where the carbon is still held for centuries to come. Using more paper will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which will improve the overall quality and quantity of oxygen.

Works Cited

Acma.gov.au. Chapter 6 – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Easy Steps to Cut out Paper Waste. N.p.: n.p., n.d. ACMA. Web. 9 Apr. 2013. <http://about.sensis.com.au/IgnitionSuite/uploads/docs/SENS0047_Book_ONLINE_v4a-Chpt06.pdf>.

“Atmospheric Chemistry of Earth’s Troposphere.” Atmospheric Chemistry of Earth’s Troposphere. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <http://www.windows2universe.org/earth/Atmosphere/chemistry_troposphere.html>.

“Carbon Dioxide.” Carbon Dioxide. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Apr. 2013. <http://www.lenntech.com/carbon-dioxide.htm>.

Claiborne, Ray C. “Through the Mill.” Weblog post. The New York Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/21/science/21qna.html?_r=0>.

“Climate Change.” NZ Wood. NZ Wood. Web. 2 Apr 2013. <http://www.nzwood.co.nz/why-wood/sustainability/climate-change/>.

“FOPAP: Why We Should Not Recycle Paper.” FOPAP: Why We Should Not Recycle Paper. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2013. <http://www.fopap.org/why_we_should_not_recycle_paper.html>.

“Frequent Questions.” Wastes – Resource Conservation – Common Wastes & Materials – Paper Recycling. US Environmental Protection Agency, 18 01 2013. Web. 2 Apr 2013. <http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/paper/faqs.htm>.

“Nature-friendly.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2013. <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/nature-friendly>.

“RECYCLING.” Keep America Beautiful. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2013. <http://www.kab.org/site/PageServer?pagename=recycling>.

“Trees: The Carbon Storage Experts.” – NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. <http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/47481.html>.

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