Paper Consumption

The consequences of mindless deforestation are soil erosion, devastating floods, loss of water filtration, decimation of aquatic life and the loss of natural human and animal habitat. Forest loss also reduces the availability of renewable resources like timber, medicinal plants, nuts, fruit, and wildlife.[1] All plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2 ) and release oxygen, the reason the Amazon rain forests are called the lungs of the Earth.  By sheer virtue of their size, trees are able to absorb more carbon dioxide than other forms of vegetation. In addition to human determinants, deforestation is also caused by climate change. Tropical rainforests are oppressively humid due to the release of water vapor. This disruption of the local climate and the loss of the canopy cause the underbrush to wilt and die. Drying out the tropical rainforest increases the risk of forest fires and wildlife decimation. (Fig 1).   

Fig.. 1 His Home is Destroyed: Where Can He Live

Undeniably, paper consumption contributes to deforestation (Fig 2).  Worldwide, 35% of harvested trees is used in paper manufacturing.  America, China, Japan, and Canada accounts for more than two-thirds of the world’s paper production – 400 million tons a year. According to the Environment Paper Network, approximately 640-million trees worth of paper are discarded each year. If recycled, 27.5 million tons of carbon dioxide can be prevented from escaping into the atmosphere.

Fig 2. Consequence of Wood-harvesting. Nova Scotia. Canada

Consequence of Paper Processing 

The negative impact of paper manufacturing on the environment is startlingly appalling. With the introduction of the printing press and mechanized wood-cutting, paper became relatively inexpensive, spawning excessive consumption and waste. The consequences to the environment are increased soil, air and water pollution, overflowing landfills and climate change: decomposing paper products generate methane, a greenhouse gas. [2]

Paper processing produces one third of the industrial air, water, and land pollution in Canada. In the US, it is the sixth largest contributor. In 2015, the industry discharged 174 million-kg of pollutants into the environment. Of that, US pulp and paper industries released 79-million kg – over 45%.  In addition, more than 15-trillion liters of water was consumed and 114 million-kg of waste generated.  In the same year, paper processing accounted for 62 million-kg of toxic waste released into the air (Fig 3). 

Fig 3 Pollution Caused by Paper Manufacturing

The Persistent, Bio-accumulative and Toxic (PBT) waste emitted by the paper industry includes lead, hexachlorobenzene (HCB), furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dioxins.  Dioxins are persistent environmental pollutants and are toxic carcinogens.  Among the human systems affected are the reproductive, immune and hormonal systems. As dioxins accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals, over 90% of human exposure is through food: primarily meat, dairy and sea foods. Short-term exposure can lead to chloracne (Fig 4). [3] 

Fig. 4. Short-term Effect of Dioxin on Humans: Viktor Yushchenko  President of Ukraine: 2005-2010  (Before and After Exposure)

Chlorine and its derivatives are used in bleaching wood pulp.  Elemental chlorine, however, produces significant quantities of chlorinated dioxins, also known as CDD (Chlorinated Dibenzo-p-dioxins). CDDs are a family of 75 chemically related compounds, of which 2,3,7,8-TCDD is one of the most toxic and a contaminant of Agent Orange. In Vietnam grotesque teratogenic effects (birth defects) were seen in children whose parents were exposed to Agent Orange (Fig 5).

Fig 5. The Effects of Agent Orange on the Unborn

Also released, and just as insidious, are nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2).  With regard to the latter, the global print and paper industry accounts for about 1% of global CO2 emissions. In part, CO2 emissions is the product of fossil fuel combustion for raw material production, transportation and wastewater treatment. Finished paper transportation, disposal and recycling also adds to atmospheric CO2, a major GHG. The other two gases, SO2 and NO2, react with atmospheric water and oxygen to form sulfuric and nitric acid which return to the soil as acid rain:   one of the most harmful agents of environmental destruction.  It solubilizes soil aluminum which is carried into the waterways and other aquatic environments killing crayfish, clams, fish, and other species. (Fig 6) [14] In addition to aquatic life, entire forest ecosystems are compromised; acid rain leaches away potassium and calcium from the soil. Because calcium competes with aluminum for uptake, calcium deficiency increases the potential of aluminum uptake in plants which leaches pools of stored calcium from the cell membranes. The loss of calcium compromises the stability of cells diminishing the cold-hardiness of foliage. 

Considering its unique role in plant physiology, calcium deficiency impairs basic survival functions predisposing trees to injury upon exposure to pollution, ozone depletion, climate change, and insect pests.[15]  

Indeed, calcium depletion has been implicated in the decline of red spruce and sugar maple.  At higher elevations, acidity and fog cause extensive damage to large swaths of forests. The broader significance of calcium depletion indicates that the same disruptions documented for red spruce can affect other evergreen species including eastern hemlock, balsam fir, and eastern white pine.[16] 

Fig. 6. The Devastation of Aquatic Life by Acid Rain.

In 2006, the paper processing industry released about 60 million kg of sulfur oxides into the atmosphere. Other sulfur compounds released into the atmosphere are hydrogen sulfide, methyl mercaptan and dimethyl sulfide. Just as deadly to plant and animal life are the non-sulfur compounds: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ammonia, mercury, manganese, methanol, benzene and chloroform.  Much to the detriment of the environment, these compounds combine with water and other substances to form acid rain and other noxious compounds. (Fig 7) 

Fig. 7: Acid Rain and Plant Life

Water Pollution

For practical purposes, pulp mills are generally located near large bodies of water. The bleaching of paper pulp causes significant environmental damage through the release of organic materials into the waterways (Fig 8). In Canada, paper manufacturing is the third source of lead (Pb) discharge into water sources whereas in the U.S., the paper industry is responsible for 9% of industrial releases into the waterway.  Pollutants aside, the paper manufacturing industry uses more water to produce a ton of product than any other industry.

 Fig. 8. Effluent from Paper Mills

Paper Waste

Waste generated from paper manufacturing is not the only source of environmental pollutants. Discarded paper and paperboard are others. In 2014, discarded paper products accounted for 26% of municipal landfills. Overall, 7.0 million trees were sacrificed to manufacture paper cups for Americans. They alone, produced about 254 million tons of trash in 2013. Of that, 87 million tons (34.0%) was recycled and composted.[4] The rest was left to decompose in landfills. (Fig 9)

Paper waste contains toxic inks, dyes and polymers that are potentially carcinogenic when incinerated. By reacting with other compounds in landfills new toxic agents are generated. Their effects on humans and other life forms are as yet undetermined. During recycling, the effluent of the de-inking process is also a source of contamination. Decomposing paper releases enormous quantities of the GHG methane into the atmosphere. In 2016, paper manufacturing in the U.S. was responsible for generating 37.7 million metric tons of CO2.[5]

Fig. 9 Decomposing Paper Waste Emits the GHG Methane.

Climate Change

By far, most of the GHG comes from the transportation industry – almost 70%.  Incredible as it may seem, the pulp and paper industry consume fully one-fifth of the worlds energy while the US emitted 6,546 million metric tons of greenhouse gas in 2016.[6]

The contribution of GHG to global warming is sobering. As of this writing, scientists have determined that the world’s glaciers are now melting faster than ever. Using satellite imagery, studies show that in the past 20-years Himalayan glaciers melted twice as fast as they did in the 1980s and ’90s. Examining 650 glaciers across a 1,240-mile swath, investigators have found that the Himalayan glaciers lost 10-inches of ice per year from 1975 to 2000. As global temperatures rose, the loss-rate doubled to 20-inches of ice per year from 2000 to 2016.[7] The pernicious effect on the people of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and India is beginning to show. The 2017 Himalayan floods that ravaged Nepal and the current drought in Tamil Nadu amplifies the symptoms of a larger problem.[8],[9] Currently, Europe is bathing in an unprecedented plume of hot air being pumped up from Africa. France recorded its highest temperature of 45.9oC in the south-east. According to scientists, the record-breaking heatwave that struck Europe in June 2019 is likely due to climate change.[10]

Fig. 10. Pond Formation in the Himalayas: Evidence of  Melting Glaciers.


Considering the CO2 sequestration potential, O2 release, soil conservation and the preservation of human and animal habitat, deforestation poses an incalculable threat to the quality of human existence. To minimize the wanton destruction to the environment, the industry has been implementing some creative solutions. One way of treating effluent from paper mills is through decomposition in biological treatment ponds. The industry mobilizes bacteria and environmentally friendly chemicals to treat and decompose the effluent.

 In an attempt to reduce clear cutting, water usage and GHG emissions, a trend towards sustainability is in progress. Preserving the forests and by extension animal biodiversity, soil fertility and water quality through sustainable forest management is as practical as it is laudable. This practice also adds social and economic value of the forests. To cut GHG emissions, the industry is making a strident effort to reduce fossil fuel consumption.[11] 

Rather than selling for commercial use, landowners are offered financial incentives to keep their land. This managed land, in turn, provides a host of continuing ecological benefits including preservation of aesthetic charm.  In addition, paper recycling decreases the demand for virgin pulp. Consequently, both trees and the environment are saved. The practice reduces water and air pollution by up to 35% and 74% respectively. 

Recycled pulp can be bleached with the same chemicals used in virgin pulp. In lieu of more noxious chemicals, hydrogen peroxide and sodium hydrosulfite are the preferred bleaching agents. Hydrogen peroxide is essentially an innocuous chemical. It rapidly decomposes into water and oxygen.  On the other hand, sodium hydrosulfite is also used for water treatment, gas purification and cleaning.  It is also used in manufacturing of leather, food, polymer and photography products. Its widespread use is attributable to its low toxicity and is therefore environmentally friendlier.

Forest conservation not only saves trees but reduces the use of fossil fuels. Ultimately, forest protection reduces the flow-through of dissipated energy. As noted previously, entropy is a measure dissipated energy.  Further, the enormity of the flow-through of dissipated energy on the social, economic and political matrix of society is quantifiably devastating. Global turbulence and the accelerated elimination of species are ample evidence.  

It is imperative that we protect the forests. The world’s forests are under unrelenting exploitation by international corporations. Studies by a Brazilian environmental watchdog found that deforestation has increased 20% in latter part of 2018. According to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, uncontrolled logging and land invasion has increased deforestation by 73% from 2012-2018 and between from 2000 to 2009, 32M acres was hacked away. The mighty Amazon lost 355 square miles of forest since Jair Bolsonaro became the president of Brazil in January 2019.   As if the lessons of Vietnam did not serve as a ghastly reminder, the Bolsonaro government has embrace Agent Orange as a means of deforestation. [12] [13] (  (Fig 11)

Fig.11. The Effects of Agent Orange on the Amazon Rain Forest

Excerpted in part from The Eloquence of Effort available on Amazon.