Paper and cardboard are two of the world’s most valuable materials, and we certainly would struggle to get by without them.
They help us share information through the written word and package and transport goods worldwide.
They have become so ingrained in our everyday existence that modern life would 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 need to be savvier with our use of paper and cardboard too, 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 worldwide as we investigate the damage human activity is causing to ecosystems and biodiversity.
Waste is a certainty 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.
High-income countries, of course, produce the most waste, and around 20% of all our trash is made of paper and cardboard.
An enormous wall could be built from New York to California with the paper wasted by the US each year.
The good news is that paper and cardboard are some of the most recycled materials we create, but many still go to landfills.
Another option 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 Harm the Environment?
Let’s start with paper; your first thought might be that burning paper would not be wrong. 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 natural, and paper is chemically bleached using Chlorine in the manufacturing process.
When waste, including paper, is burnt, it releases a chemical called Dioxin, a harmful environmental pollutant known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
Dioxin occurs naturally in small quantities but is also produced in larger amounts during incomplete waste burning. It is particularly problematic that Dioxin is released when the paper is burnt, as many assume it only contains natural plant material that would not cause any harm.
Large incinerator systems have processes 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 on top of the food chain, ultimately negatively affecting the natural environment.
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 unsafe 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 and using inks that are incredibly bad for the environment when burnt.
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 burnt, which directly impacts the environment.
Large-scale burning of cardboard could lead to the poisoning of water sources and soil contamination, which could kill local wildlife and plants and cause a dangerous buildup of chemicals in the food chain.
When you think about burning cardboard, remember to consider all the other chemicals associated with it, not just paper.
Burning cardboard can cause fires.
This is related to smaller-scale cardboard burning and might not be something you have ever thought about, but when it 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 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 most, minor cause damage to your local ecosystem.
Cardboard catches alight quickly and could overwhelm a small fire, so it is essential to be prepared and not cause environmental damage.
When Can Burning Paper and Cardboard be Good for the Environment?
There are some essential reasons why burning paper and cardboard is unsuitable 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 incompletely, producing methane. This gas is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere, accelerating 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 valuable 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 reutilized to create energy and lessen our reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels. In turn, this would benefit the environment as we recycle a source for energy use and reduce the harmful effects of fossil fuels on the climate.
Commercial burning of cardboard is 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 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 cardboard burning is 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 why this practice can cause some benefits, but ultimately one of the best pieces of advice is recycling.
There will always be paper and cardboard waste, but it is not all doom and gloom; these materials have one of the highest recycling rates of any waste created.
Investigating your local recycling options is essential as checking 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 that we currently depend on for energy production.
Removing harmful inks and chemicals from products also creates dangerous wastewater, another environmental issue. This is where, 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 option is better, as such extremes depend on what is in these materials.
Burning can cause the release of toxic chemicals into the environment, harming our health and the natural world and causing adverse effects that could last many years.
However, burning waste like paper can sometimes be better than letting it rot in landfills, contributing 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 essential to reuse products, reduce the amount of paper and cardboard you consume, and carefully investigate local options for disposing of this important resource.
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