Mythbusting Single-Use Paper Bags:
Do good things come in trees?
We all know that trees support our oxygen supply, but we bet you didn’t know this!
Did you know that the largest river in the world is not only invisible to us, but floating high above the trees of the Amazon rainforest? Yes, you read that right, and no, it’s not the setting for a new fantasy movie (although it sounds pretty perfect for it).
You’ve probably heard people describe the Amazon basin as the lungs of the Earth and, while this is very accurate, it’s not for the reason you might think. There are billions of trees making up this massive forest, but the oxygen that they produce via photosynthesis never actually leaves the Amazon. Since there are so many layers of life living within this canopy, they must use all of this precious oxygen before it can escape to the outside world. So then how does the Amazon rainforest help everyone else on Earth breathe?
There exists a “floating river” of evaporated water released from the rainforest trees that actually flows through the air right to the edge of the Amazon basin, where it hits the Andes mountains and rushes down into the ocean.1 This causes nutrient-rich sediment on the side of the mountains to be washed into the ocean, where it acts as material to create the shells of tiny creatures called diatoms. The presence of these mountain minerals allows the tiny diatoms to reproduce at an incredible rate, their population doubling every day. Now here’s the key. As they reproduce, the diatoms photosynthesize, releasing massive amounts of oxygen, in fact 20% of all oxygen produced on Earth. So even though all the oxygen directly produced by the rainforest trees remains in the forest, a huge portion of what we need to breathe still wouldn’t be available if we chopped those trees down.
These tiny sea-dwelling diatoms, and their incredible gift to the world-wide oxygen supply is just one unanticipated benefit of supporting our living forests. If we want to continue to breathe oxygen, which we probably do, we absolutely must do everything we can to preserve the trees and forests that keep us alive.
Now all of this tree appreciation looks good on paper… but you know what doesn’t? The paper itself.
To produce 1 ton of virgin fibre paper, approximately 24 trees must be logged.2 Naturally, with the rise in paper bag distribution, this kind of logging is not sustainable, so many companies and individuals have switched over to recycled paper products. On the surface, this seems like it would solve all our problems since it requires no new trees to be cut down. By now though, you probably know that what’s on the surface isn’t always the whole truth.
First things first: most of what we throw in the recycling bin does not end up being recycled. Due to contamination by food, ink, and metal, the majority of “recyclable” material ends up in the landfill. But the stuff that does get recycled is good for the environment, right? Not really.
Recycling is actually an extremely energy-intensive process, requiring approximately 22 million BTUs of energy for sorting, cleaning, and repurposing paper products.2 To make 1 ton of 100% recycled paper also uses about 11,635 gallons of water and produces 1,171 lbs of solid waste. It has been found that when recycling at maximum capacity, although demand for raw materials decreases, consumption of fossil fuels and emissions of SO2, NOx, and net CO2 increase significantly3, with approximately 3,533 lbs of CO2 and its equivalent gases being produced for 1 ton of recycled paper.2 It is also important to note that a large quantity of recycling material from North America and Europe is exported overseas, often to facilities in Asia, before being processed.4 This in turn results in increased emissions during transportation, large volumes of energy consumption, and higher risks of oil spills due to large cargo ships crossing international waters.
The best way to lower the environmental footprint of using paper bags isn’t to recycle them the second you’ve carried your groceries home from the store but rather to reuse them or repurpose them as many times as you can, avoiding the recycling process as long as possible until you eventually have to put them in the bin. So next time you go to throw your paper bag into the recycling bin, maybe ask yourself if you could use it just one more time. Think about all the tiny diatom lives you’re saving and as a result, all the extra oxygen you get to breathe.
1. “Gasp.” One Strange Rock, directed by Graham Booth, narrated by Will Smith, season 1, episode 1, National Geographic, 2018.
2. Alimiyan, Thakur Altamash. Design and Development of High Strength Paper Bag Using Non-Recycled Paper. Diss. University of Mumbai, 2016. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/55305332.pdf
3. Virtanen, Yrjo, and Sten Nilsson. Environmental impacts of waste paper recycling. Routledge, 2013. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/mono/10.4324/9781315070377/environmental-impacts-waste-paper-recycling-yrjo-virtanen-sten-nilsson
4. Van Beukering, P. J. Recycling, international trade and the environment. Springer Science & Business Media, 2001.
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