Is Burning Paper and Cardboard Bad for the Environment?

Paper and cardboard are two of the most useful materials in the world and we certainly would struggle to get by without them.

They help us share information through the written word, and to package and transport goods across the world.

They have become so ingrained in our everyday existence that modern life would grind to a halt without them.

Paper and Cardboard Consumption

Globally, we use over 440 million tons of paper every year. The planet’s paper and pulp needs are set to double by 2060, which means there will be double the amount of waste to deal with.

We are not savvy with our use of paper and cardboard either, and one shocking fact is that offices throw away 45% of the paper they use in just one day!

What happens to all this cardboard and paper once we have used it, and is it an environmentally friendly product to dispose of?

Environment protection and conservation are the focus of many people across the world as we investigate the damage human activity is causing to ecosystems and biodiversity.

Waste is an inevitability of life, and humans produce over 2 billion tons of waste every year, a third of which is disposed of in an environmentally negative way.

It is high-income countries, of course, that produce the most waste and around 20% of all our trash is made of paper and cardboard.

In fact, an enormous wall could be built from New York to California with the paper that is wasted by the US each year.

The good news is that paper and cardboard are some of the most recycled materials we create, but still, a significant amount of them makes their way to landfills.

There is another option, and that is burning our paper and cardboard, which is another widely used practice for getting rid of this type of trash; but how bad is this for the environment?

Does the Burning Paper Have a Negative Impact on the Environment?

Let’s start with paper, and your first thought might be that burning paper would not be all that bad. It is just made of plant material, right?

The paper is not naturally white. The crisp, white shine of a fresh piece of paper with all the opportunity to share ideas and information is enticing. This plain, white color is not actually natural, and paper is chemically bleached in the manufacturing process using Chlorine.

When waste, including paper, is burnt, it releases a chemical called Dioxin which is a harmful environmental pollutant, known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

Dioxin occurs naturally in small quantities but is also produced in larger amounts during the incomplete burning of waste. It is particularly worrisome that Dioxin is released when the paper is burnt, as many people assume that it only contains natural plant material that would not cause any harm.

Large incinerator systems have processes in place to lower Dioxin emissions, but smaller-scale burning, including personal home fires, leads to unregulated and high amounts of this chemical being released.

Dioxin is a long-lasting chemical that builds up in the fatty tissues of animals and humans, which can lead to illnesses and have awful effects on ecosystems. This is because concentrations of this chemical build-up in animals that are top of the food chain, ultimately affecting the natural environment negatively.

And What About Cardboard? Is it Bad to Burn this Material?

Cardboard is full of toxic chemicals and not just made of paper.

It would be easy to assume that cardboard is only made of paper, but it is full of other substances that are often not safe to burn.

Packaged goods require marketing or at the very least, appealing visuals for the boxes themselves, which have become more commonplace as industries have developed. This often involves printing logos or pictures onto the boxes, using inks that when burnt are incredibly bad for the environment.

It is not just inks used in printing that are the issue; cardboard can also contain plastic, wax coatings, and paint. All these substances release harmful chemicals like lead into the atmosphere when they are burnt, which has a direct impact on the environment.

Large-scale burning of cardboard could lead to poisoning of water sources and contamination of the soil, which could kill not only local wildlife and plants but also cause a dangerous buildup of chemicals in the food chain.

When you think about burning cardboard, remember to consider all the other chemicals this is associated with, not just paper.

Burning cardboard can cause fires.

This is perhaps related to smaller-scale cardboard burning and might not be something you have ever thought about, but when cardboard burns it can release large chunks of material into the air.

These pieces float on the hot currents from the flames and can quickly travel to areas outside of where it is being burnt. In some areas of the world, this could lead to the beginning of a devastating forest fire, or at the very least cause damage to your local ecosystem.

Cardboard catches alight quickly and could overwhelm a small fire, so it is important to be prepared and not cause environmental damage.

When Can Burning Paper and Cardboard be Good for the Environment?

There are some important reasons why burning paper and cardboard is not good for the environment. There are times, however, when burning these materials can be beneficial and even safer for the environment, which is good news!

Paper in landfills accelerates climate change.

When we throw the paper away and it ends up in a landfill, it rots in an incomplete way which produces methane. This gas is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere, which leads to an acceleration of global warming and severe climatic changes.

It is better to burn paper than to throw it away, where it will inevitably end up in a landfill and cannot break down effectively. Burning ensures that the paper effectively decomposes and prevents methane gas from being released into the atmosphere.

Paper pulp – a renewable energy source?

Paper can be a useful tool in biomass fuel, which is energy created using natural materials and is considered a significantly better option than relying on fossil fuels.

Biomass uses a variety of fuel sources and processes, but it is usually burned, and paper waste is an excellent contender as a fuel.

This would mean our paper waste could be re-utilized to create energy and lessen our reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels. In turn, this would have benefits to the environment as we are recycling a source for energy use and lessening the negative effects of fossil fuels on the climate.

Commercial burning of cardboard is considered slightly better for the environment because of the high heat used to incinerate this kind of trash, which forces it higher into the atmosphere.

This means those harmful chemicals that were mentioned earlier are not released directly into the lower atmosphere. This results in lower toxicity because of dilution and poses much less of a threat to the environment.

Large-scale burning of cardboard is therefore significantly less dangerous than doing this at home.

What Can We Do Instead of Burning?

Reduce, reuse, recycle is a common phrase that you will have heard over the last few years, and it is a life lesson that the world could do with learning sooner rather than later.

There are some key points on why burning paper and cardboard can be bad for the environment, and also why this practice can cause some benefits, but ultimately one of the best pieces of advice is to recycle.

There will always be paper and cardboard waste, but it is not all doom and gloom; in fact, these materials have one of the highest recycling rates of any waste created.

It is important to investigate your local recycling options, making sure to check what they accept and how best you can recycle.

However, recycling is not the perfect option. It uses a lot of energy to convert these materials into usable sources again, usually through burning fossil fuels which we are currently dependent on for energy production.

Removing harmful inks and chemicals from products also creates dangerous wastewater, another environmental issue. This is where, in the meantime at least, we might need to look at other ways of utilizing paper and cardboard waste.

What is the Outcome – Can we Burn Paper and Cardboard Without Causing Environmental Harm?

Like many human behaviors, burning paper and cardboard impacts the environment in various ways. It is not as clear-cut as stating which is the better option, as there are such extremes depending on what is in these materials, to begin with.

Burning can cause the release of toxic chemicals into the environment, which harms our own health as well as the natural world, causing negative effects that could last for many years to come.

It is clear, however, that burning waste like paper can sometimes be better than letting it rot in landfills, which contributes to climate change.

We can also utilize the burning of paper waste as a fuel which could help wean the world from using fossil fuels – particularly as recycling is not quite the perfect solution we hope it to be.

Ultimately, it is important to reuse products and reduce the amount of paper and cardboard you consume, and carefully investigate local options for disposing of this important resource.

Related content: Can you Recycle Papers, Catalogs, Magazines & Newspapers?

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