Is Burning Paper Bad For the Environment?

Landfills contain around 26% of total waste at landfills, and we’re constantly adding to the amount of paper waste by producing more paper.

So how do we dispose of paper properly?

Many people burn paper that contains confidential information. This is one of the most popular methods of getting rid of paper waste, as well as one of the easiest.

Shredders seem like a simpler method, but they aren’t always sufficient since paper can still be assembled together.

Burning paper is bad for the environment because of the air pollution it causes. When paper is burned, it releases harmful gases into the environment and any leftover ash can also contain toxic residue.

The best method of paper disposal is recycling, as recycled paper cuts down on the numbers of trees and water needed to produce new paper.

What does burning paper do to the environment?

A research article into paper burning and associated pollution problems focused on higher educational institutions of Ethiopia in 2017 outlines the need for recycling as the most efficient form of material utilization and waste management.

Its concerns consider the air pollutant emissions from burning assessment papers where the average emissions for carbon dioxide was 1700 parts per million (ppm) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) were “significantly higher than the guidelines recommended by WHO” at 0.10 ppm.

Nitrogen oxides encompass gases such as nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide. Nitrogen dioxide is the most well-known of these oxides, and has been found to inflame airways and increase the likelihood of respiratory infections. People with asthma and other respiratory issues suffer the most when breathing in higher levels of nitrogen dioxide.

Nitrogen oxides also contribute to the formation of acid rain. When acid rain flows through the soil, it leaches aluminum and flows into streams and lakes.

Many plants and animals are acid-sensitive so higher levels of acidic water results in fish eggs being unable to hatch or even the death of fish. This can have harmful effects on an ecosystem.

Frogs have a critical pH level of 4 and can live with higher pH levels, but the food they eat, like mayflies, can be more sensitive and are unable to survive at a pH of 5.

Plants can similarly be drained of nutrients by acid rain, which removes the minerals and nutrients found in soil that trees need to grow.

In higher elevations, acidic fog can be formed, stripping nutrients from leaves and removing the tree’s capability of absorbing sunlight.

Instead of burning paper, you should strive to recycle as much as possible.

How can recycling paper help the environment?

Recycling paper is the most eco-friendly way of disposing of paper waste.

That doesn’t mean it’s not without its own downsides – every time a piece of paper is recycled, its fibers shorten and this makes it harder to recycle next time.

You can recycle a single piece of paper between 5-7 times. Once the fibers are too short to make copier paper, they can be recycled into a paste to be used for newspaper or egg cartons.

Recycling 1 ton of paper can save up to 17 trees. If you recycle that ton five times over, that’s 85 trees saved!

Recycling paper also uses half as much water as producing paper. Treehugger states that initial paper production uses 24,000 gallons per ton, while recycling paper uses 12,000 gallons per ton.

While recycling has its own emissions from bleaching and energy usage, these are still less than when producing paper from pulp.

How does paper harm the environment?

While recycling helps us to reduce waste and emissions from burning and producing paper, paper still has a massive impact on the environment.

Though a sustainable and compostable material, the production of paper accounts for pollution, deforestation, and landfill waste.

Here are some of the ways paper harms the environment:

  • 40% of commercially cut timber is used for paper production globally.
  • When paper rots, methane is released; when burned or composted, it releases carbon dioxide.
  • 10 liters of water is needed to produce just one sheet of A4 paper.
  • Paper usage is rising – by 2060, global consumption is predicted to double since 2010.
  • Every tree lost to paper production could have produced enough oxygen for 3 people.
  • 71% of paper comes from forest timber instead of tree farms.

The enormous amounts of energy and water used to produce paper aren’t the only problems with producing paper. Harvesting timber results in deforestation across the world, resulting in the loss of carbon dioxide absorption in an area. When paper isn’t properly disposed of it finds its way to landfills, where it undergoes mummification instead of breaking down naturally.

Reducing our paper usage isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

Back in the 1970s, people thought that computers would result in the world being paper-free by the millennium. Instead, paper production doubled between 1985 and 2015, with over 406 million tons produced.

Recycling might not be perfect, but reducing, reusing, and recycling paper is far better than producing new paper every year.

Frequently asked questions about paper

If you absolutely need to burn paper, you should check your local guidelines on what is acceptable in your area. Make sure that you don’t disturb your neighbors or leave the fire unchecked, as burning paper can be very risky, especially on a windy day. To be more eco-friendly, only burn as much as you need to. Tear documents apart so you can still recycle the bulk of it.

Instead of burning confidential papers, you can shred the paper and add them to compost. If you’re unable to compost, you can soak paper in water for 24 hours and then stir the paper and water to thoroughly break up the paper and then drain the water outside before tossing the remaining pulp in a bin.

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