Why Reduce Printing?
Paper and ink seem so insubstantial that it can be challenging to understand their environmental impact. Most know that paper comes from trees, but the environmental impact of paper production reaches far beyond the forest that created the raw materials. An average tree used to produce pulp for making paper will ultimately net about 8000 sheets. For each sheet, the following inputs are also required:
Though estimates vary, roughly 3 gallons of water are required throughout the papermaking process to pulp, bleach, and refine the woody materials used to make paper. This equates to one of the largest quantities of water used to create a ton of product out of any industry. Even fruits, vegetables, and other produce often require half as much water to create a ton of product.
This high water use may still seem benign, but given the nature of the industrial chemicals used to pulp and bleach paper products, the resulting wastewater is not only voluminous, but also hazardous. Paper mill wastewater contains suspended solids, high concentrations of nutrients, dissolved organic matter, as well as inks and additives stripped from recycled paper. If improperly treated, this wastewater can result in eutrophication of our waterways.
Large quantities of energy are required at every step of the papermaking process, giving paper a high carbon footprint that is unaffected by recycling. Not only do mechanized logging machines require fuel to fell stands of forest, but so do the large trucks used to transport these trees. Once at the paper mill, power is needed to chip the trees, strip their bark, mechanically grind that material into pulp, refine the pulp, press the pulp into sheets, and finally package and distribute to consumers.
Once delivered, even more energy is required to run printers, pick up the recycled paper, strip the ink, and repulp before entering the papermaking process again. As with many resources, the United States uses six times more paper than the global average. Even if all of that paper is recycled, the energy that went into that paper cannot be recovered.
Loss of Biodiversity
Though not an "input" in the technical sense, there is an opportunity cost associated with the widespread felling of forests for pulping. As forest cover is reduced, or periodically regenerated and felled, ecosystems are lost and biodiversity is reduced. Considering that 1 ton of paper requires 3 tons of trees to produce, the reduction of biodiversity and viable, forested ecosystems is continuing faster than the average consumer may have imagined. Early surveys from the 17th century suggest that, due to a combination of factors that include deforestation for paper production, over 90% of the forested land in the continental United States has been lost.
In addition to the aforementioned inputs and pollutants, there are further environmental costs associated with paper production. Papermaking is responsible for about 5% of all industrial pollutants, or 100 million kilograms of hazardous pollutants annually. Pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide contribute to acid rain, while carbon dioxide resulting from the energy inputs contributes to global climate change. Considering that papermaking requires about 4% of all global energy, that is a substantial contribution. As mentioned above, these impacts will exist regardless of your decision to recycle paper.