This is a post about my recent research on paper making and how it affects our Earth. We all know that it’s good to reduce paper usage and if you do, make sure you shred it and voila your duty is done. But this post will be more than just these two simple steps. It all started when I had to use papers during my internship. Back then I was doing a lot of company credit rating research so I had to read pages and pages of companies’ annual reports for my credit rating reports. It’s all finance stuff so if you’re not into finance, let’s just say that I had to read and research a lot. It gets tiring sometimes to continuously read reports on your laptop and makes it slightly difficult to discuss with your colleagues when you don’t have the printed copy. So, torn between wanting to reduce paper usage and getting the job done, I decided to print. Not all , though. The feeling still bugged me about reducing paper usage. Then I proceeded to the shredding machine where I make sure all my papers get shredded and not thrown into the rubbish bins. But it occurred to me, what happens then after I shred the paper? Will it help with the environment and where does all this shredded paper go?
At that time, it was just a thought which I forgot about later on. Then earlier this year, I had my final examinations and I printed some of my slides. I usually just use my tablet to learn but realized that I end up writing everything back while studying (not so efficient and very time consuming and I waste paper as well). So while printing them, the same thought occurred to me and I got a little distracted and frustrated with the amount of papers I used. I came home and with all the free time I had, I started reading up on the paper industry. I did my research and to be honest, it took me awhile before I came up with this post because I wasn’t sure about so many things with the industry. And this is what I found out from all the readings I did. It may not be complete with all the information about pulp and paper industry and this is a summarized/simplified version based on my understanding so if you are interested on this topic, you can definitely do a further reading.
The diagram above is a clear process of how paper industry works and what is done when you recycle your paper. Starting with the collection of wood, following the brown arrow that leads to paper making which then is distributed out before going back to the industry as a recycled product. It’s pretty much straight forward and looks sustainable with very little environmental problems. That was what I thought when I first did my research. But if you look again at the process, these are some of the issues concerning the paper industry:
Cutting down of trees; the consequences of it. When you cut down trees, not just one of two trees but hundreds of them for paper production you not only disrupt the natural habitat for wildlife but also may cause soil erosion and contribute towards global warming. It may seem like a simple problem where you can solve by planting new trees to replace the ones you cut but it’s not. That’s the thing about natural resources and environmental problems, they’re all interconnected and you have to look at the bigger picture to connect the dots. The disruption of ecosystem can cause permanent effect to the wildlife and also may lead to extinction of some species. It’s not like as if a forest can be built within two weeks so should we be cutting down trees without waiting for trees to grow first ? The dilemma is always there. In fact, 40% of industrial wood is traded globally and this means that its not just a one country’s affair. People trade wood for production of paper, among other usage of wood. We cannot replenish the forest before cutting them down again at the rate we are consuming it. The question is, how do you shift the wildlife to a new habitat before cutting down the trees ? How do you counter back the issue with soil erosion ? At the rate we’re going, we’ll probably clear out all the forest and left with no more trees to harvest.
This is where the recycling part comes in. In today’s paper industry, there are two types of pulp used; virgin and recycled fibre. Recycled fibre is used in the paper production so that we can reduce the intake of virgin fibre which is a product made from the trees we cut down. So if you’re wondering what’s the purpose of shredding your paper, this is it. The shredded paper will go through a few process before turning back into pulp that is then used again for paper making.
Chemicals and water pollution. The process of paper making, whether using virgin fibre or recycled fibre uses chemical and other materials. Transforming the wood to pulp usually involves cooking the wood chips in a chemical solution. Chemicals used, from what I read are often sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide. After that, fillers are added such as chalk, clay, starch or titanium oxide. The materials vary based on the type of product produced and the company’s methods. Even with recycling paper, you have to remove the ink which involves bleaches or dyes then convert them back into pulps that can be rolled to papers or other products. This will lead to water pollution, no doubt. It is not easy to separate chemical solutions from the water again and it’ll eventually flow into the ocean, disrupting the aquatic ecosystem and also affecting the soil. In fact, based on research done, pulp and paper industry is one of the largest consumer of water used in industrial activities. There was an article by WWF about this industry and how it’s affecting the environment in more than just one way. It also said that paper mills discharge pollutants and this will lead to aquatic problems as well as health issues. Let’s not forget that we humans consume water too on daily basis and with all the pollution, the water needs to be treated first before it’s safe for us to consume. This adds to the social cost and consumer will have to bear the additional costs.
Apart from the obvious environmental issues I stated above, there are other concerns too such as illegal harvesting, regulations, irresponsible practices in the industry etc etc. There have also been development on producing paper using other resources as many people are becoming more aware of the issues in this industry. I found this while doing my research and it’s a really good website, do check it out !
The development of creating a sustainable environment is a continuous effort and requires lots of researches. But even the little things, if we are able to do it we should. Here are some suggestions on how to help:
- Shred them papers ! If you don’t own a shredder, recycle them at the recycling centre. You can google the nearest recycling centre, I’m sure there’s one in each area. Don’t forget to remove paper clips or other non-paper materials before you recycle.
- If you can avoid using paper, why not? Save you some pocket money too!
- Responsible sourcing and trade of paper products. Know the brands you choose and choose a responsible one.
- Ask for transparency in the sector, exercise your rights as a consumer! If you have questions about the brands you use, why not drop them an email for clarification?
Let’s not forget that wood is used for more than just paper. It’s also used to create furniture, construction of buildings and many other products. If we cannot avoid using those products, the least we could do is use it wisely and not practice irresponsible consumption. Remember, when you buy something, the company will have to produce more to replenish their stock. This means higher demand for wood and therefore, more trees being cut down. Not all products from wood can be recycled and reused as raw ingredient. If you buy just to realize later on that you have no use for it and end up throwing it away, that too can contribute to various environmental problems. Let’s together be a responsible consumer 🙂
It’s the little things that matters, the little effort that will bring changes to the world.