I bet you’ve received a few emails from well-meaning environmentalist friends and coworkers with a signature that says something like
“Please consider the environment before printing this email.“
Today I ran into something very interesting. I received an email from a coworker whose signature was the exact antithesis:
“Notice: It’s OK to print this email. Paper is a biodegradable, renewable, sustainable product made from trees. Growing and harvesting trees provides jobs for millions of Americans. Working forests are good for the environment and provide clean air and water, wildlife habitat and carbon storage. Thanks to improved forest management, we have more trees in America today than we had 100 years ago.”
I’m Hesitant to Give an Opinion
I’m not passing any sort of judgement on anyone here. Personally I try to keep my opinions on things like this out of my professional life. I recycle just about everything that crosses my desk and then some, and if people see my example and do the same that’s awesome. So “professional me” is keeping his nose out of it.
So Here’s my Opinion Anyway
However The Renaissance Caveman thinks this seems like a pretty relevant topic to discuss considering I just talked about the difference between Recycling, Reducing, and Reusing yesterday in my post about reducing your junk mail. So let’s explore this idea a bit.
The Tree is a Red Herring (or “It’s the Production Chain, Stupid”)
The “it’s OK to print this email” people are absolutely right: paper is biodegradable, renewable, and sustainable. But this argument assumes that the death of that poor, innocent tree, cut down in it’s prime before it even got to see it’s seeds germinate is the only thing that concerns the environmentalist, and by extension it reduces the environmentalist to a tree hugger. The environmental impact of paper goes beyond the felling of a tree.
- Fossil fuels power everything from the trucks and saws used by the logger to the mills where the wood turns to pulp and then into paper, to the complicated logistics chain that eventually gets that paper to your office. In addition to burning nonrenewable resources all of these machines contribute to air pollution.
- Wood is not the only ingredient that goes into paper. The pulping process uses dangerous chemicals including mercury, and all sorts of other delicious chemicals are used in paper production. When the paper breaks down these chemicals don’t just disappear.
- Even if the paper itself was pure, your ink and toner probably aren’t. If you’d like to know what’s in your toner (aside from gold and diamonds which I only can assume are the main ingredient based on cost), just locate the MSDS sheet from the manufacturer (here’s an example from HP). Of course most of the ingredients are trade secrets, so decide for yourself if that gives you more or less confidence about their health and environmental impact.
Reduce > Reuse > Recycle
And even if none of this were true there would still be an environmental impact from the recycling process itself. Let’s say your paper was made from trees that were sustainably harvested, the equipment from the logger on down to the truck that delivered the ream of paper were all running on sunshine and happy thoughts, and your printer cartridge contained nothing but orange juice. There is still energy and environmental impact involved in recycling the paper to turn it back into a usable product.
Is recycling your paper (and buying recycled paper) better environmentally than buying new product that results in running the whole production chain? Absolutely. But environmentally speaking, never manufacturing that paper at all is always the best option. If environmental impact is the only concern, not creating and consuming a product will always be the best answer.
Hey! My Family Depends on you Wasting Paper!
Now I’m from Central Pennsylvania where I know this idea is less than popular. We’re surrounded by woodlands which (giggle giggle) makes it difficult to see the forest for the trees sometimes. We look around and laugh at the idea of running out of something that occurs naturally in such abundance, but running out of trees is a total misrepresentation of the environmentalist’s concern. The entire production chain has a negative environmental impact that doesn’t have to happen.
Of course much of our local economy revolves around wood manufacturing. We’re home to dozens of companies that employ thousands of people in the manufacture of wood products. So I get it, I really do: less paper might mean less jobs. One might also argue that fewer nuclear weapons would mean less jobs too, but it’s still a noble goal.
So print your email. Or don’t. The choice is up to you and the environmental impact of not printing that email is pretty minimal compared to just about anything else you might do to minimize your environmental impact. But by all means, do something.