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GREENINGS (FALL 2017): Reducing paper waste

October 12th, 2017 · No Comments

We need to plant more than we harvest

As we turn our attention to going back to school, it’s nice to reflect on the ways we can reduce the waste that we generate during the school year.

According to one survey, the average school in the United States uses about 2,000 sheets of paper per day. One can probably assume numbers in Canada are very similar. Canadians are also responsible for hacking up more pristine forests than any other country on the planet, according to a 2014 Forest Watch Canada study.

When I was a child, technology was supposed to move us towards a paperless society. Instead, consumption increased as it got easier and cheaper to print stuff out. According to the Paperless Project, a grassroots coalition of companies working to change how organizations work with paper and electronic content, the last twenty years have seen a staggering 126 per cent growth in paper use.

Pulp and paper is an important industry in Canada for sure, but we really need to diversify away from being drawers of water and hewers of wood. In Alberta and Ontario, the industry saw 14 and 13 per cent growth respectively from 2014 to 2015. And for all that activity, in 2014 we saw 717,000 hectares harvested compared to 399,000 hectares replanted. It certainly brings into question our reputation as environmental stewards. Combine the intentional harvesting along with forest fires in recent years, and Canada is quickly losing a major resource that is also an important carbon sink. Last year’s Fort McMurray fires saw a loss of 590,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) while this year’s BC forest fires have so far resulted in an estimated 845,000 hectares of loss. Protecting our forest needs to be a high priority, both from an environmental standpoint and a resource management standpoint. Canada has a lot of forest, but if the cod fisheries in the 1990s taught us anything, it too can collapse.

Arguably Canada is one of the few places left in the world where sustainable forestry is possible. There should be no excuse for having such a disparity between the area that is harvested and the amount that is replanted.

Companies doing the harvesting should be mandated to plant more than they take. This responsibility should not fall on teenagers looking for volunteer work during their summers. That’s called socializing costs while privatizing profits. Resources are shared among Canadians, not just a select few. This is an industry that generates tens of billions of dollars in sales with a tiny fraction spent on environmental protection.

It is high time that we recognize that companies can’t simply extract without putting back into the environment and mitigating harm. We have a deep history of resource extraction that is viewed as a god-given right. It is time to start shifting those views as we embrace a role of moving from extractors to protectors. Those who protect resources from harm shouldn’t be labelled “activist” as though they come from the fringes of society. We have normalized doing harm and vilified protecting the very things that give us life.

And as we wait for governments to act, we should remember to do our own part in reducing the demand for pulp and paper products. Granted, between using paper and plastic, my heart bleeds less when a paper plate is discarded. I have a reasonable expectation that unlike the plastic, evidence of the paper plate won’t last longer than humanity’s remaining time on earth.

But, we should still strive for zero waste. Paper can only be recycled so many times and new pulp always needs to be added into the recycled material. Food-contaminated paper can’t be recycled at all, so those pizza boxes you diligently break down into the blue box? Yep. Landfill. Don’t let the recycling labels fool you. A pizza box will ruin a perfectly good batch of recycled fibre.

For those with school-aged children, reduction can mean anything from replacing brown paper bags to replacing napkins with small washable towels. In my home, I chase runny noses around with little bum wipes that go straight into the laundry. They’re small, convenient, and I’m not throwing out a tissue for every little bit of snot that comes dripping down.

Individual reduction will only do so much, but it’s still important that we do it. Governments must act, and we must lead the way.

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy, and help distinguish environmental truths from myths.

 

READ MORE GREENINGS BY TERRI CHU:

Taking tolls to the Gardiner and Don Valley Parkway (July 2017)

Lessons from Madrid (June 2017)

Thoughts on hitting the 400 benchmark (May 2017)

Solving the food waste problem (April 2017)

Kellie Leitch was right (March 2017)

 

Tags: Annex · Life