I've been wanting to write this article for some time now and a conversation I had over the weekend gave me just the push I needed. You've seen it before, that annoying, useless, holier-than-thou end to someone's email signature, "Please consider the environment before printing this email." Sometimes maybe you've seen it as, "Save trees. Please print this email only if necessary." I've even seen people chastised for using paper bags in delis and grocery stores by someone who decided they needed to help save trees. Well, guess what, the trees don't need your help.
That's right, if you're one of those on the "save the trees" kick, I have news for you. The trees don't need you to save them, I promise. At least not from the timber industry (which is where your paper comes from). While global deforestation is still an issue, the timber-products industry, especially in the United States, Canada, and Europe (among other responsible countries), is not only not a contributor to deforestation, but is actually one of the most beneficial contributors to the growing forests we have.
I understand how this trend started. We've grown up with stories and videos of rainforests being destroyed and clear-cut to support our growing population. We see areas in our neighborhoods that were once covered in trees cleared to make way for strip malls and housing developments. The problem with this view of the timber industry is that it's just not accurate in most of the world, particularly in the United States.
Trees are a renewable natural resource. They are farmed, they are recyclable, and they are biodegradable. They're also not in danger from the timber industry and the products you buy at the store, like paper, cardboard boxes, and lumber. In fact, total forest growth in the United States has exceeded the amount harvested each year since the 1940s, meaning we actually have more forest land now than we did 70 years ago. Look closely at the paper you buy and you'll also notice a small logo on it that says it's FSC certified, meaning it's guaranteed to be responsibly sourced from land that is used for timber farming. These lands are harvested, re-planted, grown, and re-harvested the same as any other renewable, farmed resource. This includes imported paper regardless of where it comes from (and we import a lot of paper) - as long as you see that seal.
Not only are trees farmed, but the continued use of wood products is actually beneficial to the environment when sourced responsibly. We all know trees use sunlight and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, producing oxygen as a byproduct. What's important to remember is the carbon atom needs to go somewhere, and ends up being stored within (as) the tree itself. When the tree biodegrades or is burned, the carbon atom is released back into the atmosphere after bonding with two more oxygen atoms once again as carbon dioxide. This means that as long as the chemical structure of the wood remains in-tact in products like paper and lumber, the carbon is stored indefinitely (a carbon sink). So while another tree grows in its place to suck more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, the previous tree remains as a (semi) permanent carbon store.
In paper, this is only possible with recycling, as the paper you throw in the garbage breaks down quite quickly in landfills, releasing that carbon back into the atmosphere. This means that recycling programs are also an extremely important part of the process, where the paper continues to function as a carbon sink as long as it's being used in recycled products like more paper for your printer or cardboard.
It's also important to remember that more than 58% of the current land used for timber farming is privately owned. This means that if the demand for timber falls to the point where it's no longer a profitable enterprise for those private land owners, that land will be repurposed for other, more profitable uses. Meaning that sustaining demand for timber resources is critical to ensuring we maintain our timber forests.
Then there's the whole concept that going digital is somehow "green." Yes, Searles Graphics is a printing company, but it's also a digital marketing and web design and development company, so while this post may seem somewhat self-serving, here's the other side.
Electronic waste is one of the most harmful pollutants in the world right now, and the United States is the single largest global contributor. Electronic waste contains extremely toxic substances like mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium and brominated flame retardants. Up to 90% of the world's electronic waste is illegally traded or dumped each year according to the UN Environment Programme, and in the US, the majority of our electronic waste goes straight into our landfills, leaving all of those toxins to leach directly into the ground.
On the other hand, 96% of Americans currently have access to community curbside and/or drop-off paper recycling programs, and paper recovery for recycling has exceeded 63% each year since 2011 in the United States.
And the individual choices you make do matter. Every time you use email instead of print, that email needs to live somewhere; namely two separate data centers - in your outbox and the recipient's inbox - after traveling through a number of others on the journey from one to the other. Each of those datacenters turns over hardware on a regular basis, has increasing demands for storage and compute capacity, and uses a tremendous amount of power to not only keep those servers on, but to light and cool the facilities in which they reside. In fact, approximately half of the energy used by datacenters traditionally is attributed to the AC bill. That energy comes mostly from non-renewable resources that emit a tremendous amount of greenhouse gases and actually serve as our best carbon sinks when left untouched.
Still not sure? Here's an interesting take about how adding that "Please consider the environment" disclaimer actually harms the environment.
All this being said, the paper and timber industries do have negative effects on the environment when it comes to processing these resources, the same as any other industry. Power and energy are always required, to perform work, and that power needs to come from somewhere. However, while electronic waste continues to become a larger environmental issue every day, timber industries are constantly striving to becoming more and more efficient to limit those effects, while at the same time more trees continue to be planted and grow than we're harvesting. And while I'm certainly not advocating that you waste paper for the sake of wasting paper - being wasteful is still being wasteful - this idea that printing is somehow awful for our environment while ignoring the far more detrimental effects electronic waste has is just ill-informed and ignorant.
Oh yeah, and make sure you share this article with everyone you know to get them up to speed too!
Photo: Flickr | Sam Beebe
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