Facts and figures about water / Responsible Water Scientists

The water footprint of paper

Ok, we all agree that plastic is the current number 1 enemy, right?

But indeed, as already discussed in a previous post, in our quest for sustainability, and a zero waste lifestyle, we should to look at the whole picture and consider all kind of waste we generate. This is why, in my resolution to “know better my bin” I also started checking the amount of paper waste I produce in our household.
So here we are:


Cartoon by Christine Rai

In a year (October 2017-September 2018) in my household we produced 5.9 Kg of paper waste per person (i.e. approximately 0.5 Kg per month/person), with a massive peak in December 2017 (mainly given by the box of my new bike basket and some other presents Santa gave me).
Of course this paper was not sent to landfill directly, but our 11.8 Kg they were conferred in separate waste collection, thus contributing to the total European recycling rate (72.3% in 2017).
Worldwide the average annual paper consumption is 48 Kg/person, which makes my statistics not so bad. But let me add some considerations:

  • Even if I try to bring home (i.e. to weight and recycle) all the papers I get/use out of home (e.g. bus tickets, printed hand-out and flyers from congresses, the paper bags I use if I forget my reusable ones …I know: shame on me) there might be something missing from this count, like the tertiary and secondary packaging of the products I buy bulk, or other papers I do not print, but someone else does (like all the papers in the administration related to my job).
  • Excluded from the count are the greasy pizza boxes, that can not be collected in the paper recycling bin. Here the problem is related to the oil seeping on the cardboard which can not be separated from the fibres, hence making that material less valuable (i.e. less marketable) to buyers.
  • At some point, I will eventually have to add the papers I store for reuse:


  • I am not sharing my data to show off, but to share the message that, with little precautions, all of us can contribute to cut (paper) waste generation.

But wait, what’s wrong with paper” one may ask, “It is natural and it can be recycled, thus not harmful for the environment”.
So here my point: is it true?
At industrial level, paper production is composed of several, and well known, steps: from forest to wool pulp (cellulose) production, cleaning and paper making.


http://www. paperonline.org/paper-making/paper-production/papermaking

All processes are resources, water and energy consuming, hence with a potential negative impact on the natural environment, and overall contribute to the depletion of natural resources. In fact, all the life cycle of paper production has negative externalities on the environment, from tree cutting to paper burning in incinerators (thus contributing to increase the CO2 emissions in atmosphere).
To this, one should add all the pollutants associated to the different productive steps, from pulp manufacturing to bleaching. Effluents from pulp mills using bleaching can include alcohols, chelating agents inorganic materials (e.g. like chlorates and transition metal compounds), nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorus). All these potentially harmful compounds can alter the ecological characteristics of freshwater bodies if wastewater is not adequately treated.
Talking about water, according to van Oel and Hoekestra (2010), the water footprint of paper ranges from 2 to 13 litres for an A4 sheet. The high variability of this number depends, of course, on the source of the wood (especially because forest evapotranspiration and wood yield vary from one region to another).
Clearly, without recovery (recycling), the global average water footprint of paper would be much larger as, by using recovered paper, an estimated 40% is saved globally. Further saving can be achieved by increasing the recovery percentages worldwide.

So, back to my data, if approximately 324 litres of water are used to produce 1 Kg of paper (which is almost twice the water footprint of plastic), my annual waste production corresponds to more than 1,911 litres of water/year. Given that recycling 1Kg of paper saves approximately 296 litres of water, fulfilling my citizen duties and recycling allow me to save 1,746 litres of water.
This results in a final waste of 165 litres of water per year associated to my paper consumption. Of course it is not so bad, but considering the aforementioned situations where I do not have control on paper consumption/recycling, I think I am definitely indebted to the planet.

To conclude, commonly we are inclined to think that paper is not as bad as plastic, because at least it is biodegradable, but a careful look at its water footprint, should push us to make a wiser use of paper products. Here some examples:

  • Think before printing. An old, but still valuable motto. Print only the items you need to print and encourage your colleagues to do so:

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