A life lived without paper

00:26, May 16 2014

OPINION: I really like to write things down on paper. There's something about inscribing curling lines onto pulped wood that helps me to think and the words to flow. I also like to read things printed on paper. I find it easier to digest information this way, especially if it's complex or lengthy. I prefer editing on hard copy too, both in order to spot mistakes and to make margin notes, insert arrows and other scribbles only decipherable by me.

I do recycle. Underneath my desk at work is a box that gets filled with A4 sheets destined for the recycling bin. At home we sort envelopes, muesli bar boxes and all manner of paper and cardboard to put in the green recycling bag. Still, as you can tell I'm hardly a paragon of the 'paperless society' and as I research this topic, I begin to cringe at the thought of how much paper passes through my life.

WWF reports that globally we consume 400 million tons of paper a year - equivalent in weight to 80 million elephants if you can get your head around a herd that size. Half of this is used by Europeans and North Americans and is thrown away after a short time. By 2020 it's forecasted we'll be using 500 tons per annum.

The pulp and paper industry is the world's fourth largest industrial user of energy - it takes a lot to power those mills - and a major emitter of greenhouse gases. Paper itself goes on to release further greenhouse gases. If it rots in landfill it will emit methane and if it's burned or composted it will emit carbon dioxide. Not to mention the fact that felling trees in the first place removes a carbon 'sink'. The paper cycle is hardly a virtuous one.

 What's more, making paper requires so much water that the industry is the single largest consumer of H20 for manufacturing purposes in OECD countries. To make things worse, paper mills may discharge pollutants into waterways including chlorine compounds, sulphur dioxide and phosphates.


 Is there any good news on the paper front? Well, some kinds of paper really are better than others. Wellington City Council Waste minimization officer Meagan Miller, recommends looking out for the international FSC logo (Forest Stewardship Council), for assurance your paper has come from a sustainable plantation source. Choose paper with at least 30% post-consumer recycled content, or ideally 100%. Where possible buy chlorine-free paper too.

Meagan does report that Wellingtonians are good recyclers. Last year 5,791 tonnes of our used paper products were shipped to Fullcircle Recycling in Auckland. Here they are reincarnated as paperboard for the packaging industry.

 For me, however, the writing is on the wall. I need to use less paper to begin with. According to The Economist, the Belgians each consume the equivalent of 8.51 40-foot trees every year. This is the most per capita in the world and partly attributable to the EU headquarters being there where vast amounts of paperwork are printed in countless languages.

Imagining how many trees worth of paper I might consume gives me pause. Its ubiquity makes it all too easy to take for granted. It sounds cheesy but I think my new mantra around the office needs to be 'think before you print' and I plan to stick this poster up by our printers. I'll try to follow some of the WWF's other paper saving tips too.

Are you already a frugal paper consumer? Do you recycle paper yourself?