Pros and Cons of Paper Products
Updated: Nov 10
When you start your zero waste journey, paper is often the first sustainable choice. Paper products are an easy and widely available alternative to plastic products. However, there are also lots of downsides to paper products. These cons will be discussed below. First I would like to mention some of the benefits of paper products.
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Pros of Paper
The biggest advantage of paper is that it can be decomposed more easily compared to plastic products. Paper is made from fibers that are primarily comprised of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, which are all plant sources. This means that paper products (if they are not contaminated with glue, stickers, or other plastic parts) will naturally decompose in a few weeks.
Paper products can also be recycled. Several paper products can be recycled like newspapers, magazines, catalogs, junk mail, printer paper, envelopes, gift wrapping paper, cardboard, and even paper egg cartons.
Even though recycling still requires energy and water, this is considerably less compared to the production of virgin paper. Producing paper from recycled materials uses about 50% less water compared to virgin paper and about 1/3 less energy is used. Also, the release of greenhouse gasses during the production of recycled paper is much less.
The biggest advantage of recycling paper is that there is no need to cut down new trees. These trees will continue to absorb carbon dioxide for us and will provide us with much-needed oxygen.
So, yes recycling costs energy but if you have to option of dumping your paper trash in landfills/incinerators or recycling it, recycling is definitely the more sustainable option.
With recycling, you prevent hazardous gases from entering our atmosphere which could happen when the paper is burned in a landfill.
The paper (pulp) industry (and the paper recycling industry) creates lots of jobs for men and women around the world. In the EU alone almost 200.000 people work in the industry. Even though this number is slowly decreasing due to lots of automatizations, the demand for paper products remains high and lots of employment options will remain.
This gives people financial security which is great for the economy worldwide.
Cons of Paper
Increase in waste
With the improvements in the technology of more efficiently making paper and paper products, disposable paper becomes much more affordable for the average consumer. Especially now we know that plastic hardly decomposes and is made from fossil fuels while the paper is made from a renewable source and is biodegradable. This results in a drastic increase in the consumption of paper products and in the end, paper pollution. It is estimated that 25% of the waste in the US is paper.
Unfortunately, a lot of paper products end up in landfills that could have been recycled. Often this is due to either unwillingness of the consumer as it is too much effort for them or there are just no recycling facilities nearby. If consumers have to go too much out of their way to ensure their paper waste is recycled, they are often unwilling and if they have to drive that distance by car, it will also undo the energy benefits of recycling. So if we would make these recycling centers more accessible, people are more willing to participate.
This increase in paper demand comes with an increase in demand for trees which causes endangerment of natural habitats of certain animals. At this moment, around 4.1 million hectares of forest are destroyed each year because of our increased demand for paper products.
This is roughly 80.000 to 160.000 trees each day around the world with a big percentage being used in the paper industry.
So, the paper industry is a big contributor to deforestation and is partly to blame for the endangerment of some species that live in those forests.
Paper production requires lots of water. A US Letter/A4 size paper requires 2,6 gallon/10 liters of water for the production of one sheet. During the production of paper over 40 different chemicals are used.
During the production of paper and pulp products, manufacturers discharge water polluted with these chemicals. These end up in our groundwater where they contribute to soil and water pollution. This will in the end affect all life in the soil and water and even affect our health when this water is again used to make our drinking water.
The paper industry is the 4th largest consumer of fossil fuel in the world. To produce 1 ton of paper approximately 253 gallons /950 liters of petroleum is required. The production of paper produces 70% more air pollution and 50 times more water pollution than plastic bag production. It takes more than 4 times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag compared to a plastic bag.
I think I am not alone when I say that the downsides of the production of paper shocked me. The amount of water and petroleum required for paper production surprised me. Also, the chemicals involved in the production and recycling of paper are just horrible.
So, what can you do to minimize paper pollution?
Only use paper when you really need it.
Keep your documents digital when possible.
When you need paper, use only recycled paper that was environmentally friendly manufactured.
Make the people around you aware to be more conscious about recycling.
It will be a challenge but we make the world a little better one small step at a time.