Substituting one-time paper products for plastic not the solution

The USA alone consumes 68 million trees (35 per cent of total) per annum for paper alone.


Substituting one-time paper products for plastic not the solution

This is a comment on your “Our View” of Oct. 15, 2020, expressing support for banning single use plastics.

Unfortunately anything to do with the environment is complicated and always multi-faceted. Banning single use plastic is one such issue. The anti-plastic movement has become international and many are jumping on the bandwagon without considering all the facts.

Plastic is popular, cheap and convenient, but those are not the only reasons for using it, as will be shown. Clearly substitution of the plastic will have to be found and superficially wood products in the form of paper are an obvious choice, but the incorrect choice.

Firstly, let us not forget that plastic bags are not necessarily one time use. Many people re-use them for garbage disposal, picking up dog poop, and for storage. One study in Quebec showed 77 per cent of plastic grocery bags are re-used. Another study in California showed an increase of an extra 5,400,000 kg per annum of trash bags when plastic grocery bags were removed. Without them consumers go out and buy heavier, more durable plastic bags that have to be manufactured, transported, and still ultimately disposed of in landfills.

However, the main point is that from an environmental perspective, substituting the utilization of one time use plastic products with one time use paper products is the wrong decision for the environment. The following facts illustrate why.

The making of paper consumes about 500 million terajoules of energy per annum and it increases at 100 units per second. It produces about 3.5 trillion tonnes of CO2 per annum, going up at 500 per second. That leads to about 600 billion tonnes of ice melting per annum. Sadly recycling paper leaves a larger carbon footprint than making new paper because of the chemicals and the mechanical processes involved. It consumes more energy and energy consumption means pollution. It can only be recycled a limited amount of times causing recyclers to err on the side of safety.

The respected Think Green News estimates that in North America we each consume 318 kg (700 pounds) of paper per annum. Five per cent of the world’s population uses 38 per cent of the paper. We are paper gluttons! Worse, up to 26 per cent of paper ends up in landfills. The manufacture of paper has increased 400 per cent in the last 20 years and the rate is increasing.

The USA alone consumes 68 million trees (35 per cent of total) per annum for paper alone. Worldwide paper production consumes 60 per cent of the 480 million cubic meters (17 billion cu ft) of the wood cut. This equates to 420 million tonnes of paper and cardboard and it is estimated this will double by 2030. One kilogram of paper requires two to three times the weight of trees! Paper production is the third largest polluter of air, water and land. It releases 100 million kg of toxic pollution per annum in North America alone.

The manufacture of paper requires 10 litres of water per single A4 sheet of paper. The pulp and paper industry is the highest consumer of water in the west. Here in the Cowichan Valley we know well the connection between the industry and our water source. This is not a judgement on Crofton which is a valued local business. Each job in a primary industry produces between three to seven downstream jobs.

We are cutting or burning nearly 23 million ha (58 million acres) of forests per annum, which is equivalent to 40 football fields per minute. The deforestation rate increases by one hectare per second. The loss of forests is already approaching 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emission. Deforestation consumes much energy and destroys water sources and habitats, and produces air pollution and waste disposal problems. Trees are one way that nature counters humans intent on destroying the planet. We need to stop cutting any more trees than we have to. We need to stop exporting raw logs and we must plant more trees, sooner.

Of course one of the largest users of paper is the common everyday flyer. Hats off to Superstore who are moving to digital flyers only. Flyers are one of the key elements that keep local newspapers viable. Every week I get a few pages of news and a large volume of flyers which I do not want. I have no choice, I have to accept this huge waste if I want a newspaper. Something wrong with this picture!

Each of Canada’s 14 million households receives about 1,200 flyers per year. In 2010 16 billion flyers were delivered. There are no estimates of how many ended up in landfills because of the inks used or them having been soiled. Promoters of flyers say 75 per cent of people read their flyers and an additional 50 per cent read catalogues. However more critical surveys show most people only browse a few pages, with the exception of grocery flyers. Ten per cent of people want no flyers at all and 67 per cent say they want them once per week. Less than ten per cent indicate they take flyers into consideration when purchasing non grocery items.

Developed society laments cutting old growth forests and the burning of rain forests. The real issue is people are ignorant of how gluttonous we are and the environment cannot stand the substitution of wood for plastic. We seriously need to improve recycling (for both products, in fact everything) and be prepared to pay for it if we value the earth.

Public education is key. It is gut wrenching to see plastic products killing sea life and we correctly worry about microplastics. However, there is some good news. Recently scientists have found bacteria that break down plastics seven times faster. Large scale floating machines now are removing tonnes of plastic from the oceans. Burger King and Tim Hortons are starting to experiment with recyclable containers, if only people will use them. We keep worrying about landfills but Canada is blessed with lots of real estate but we just need to be prepared to pay more for haulage.

In summary, environmental issues are very complicated. Let us not be too quick to jump on bandwagons and make choices that make matters worse for the overall environment. Substituting the use of one time paper products for one time plastic products is such a case.

Dick Zandee