The UnGreen … our Sunday newspaper

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500,000 trees must be cut down just to produce each week’s Sunday newspaper (all US Sunday papers combined).

That’s a bummer. The Sunday paper has been a fixture in my life for, well, my entire life. Something to look forward to, something I can always count on, a great way to enlighten myself to news that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the environment.

I’ve been struggling with the green–or ungreen–of receiving the Sunday paper for some time now. When I first considered this a couple of years ago, I was certain that reading online was the better option. Without doing any research, I ran the idea past my husband. “You’re kidding, right? This is the one thing I look forward to.” Note to self: don’t ask questions while husband is immersed in sports section. Of course, he’s from New York, so the NY Times has a bit of sentimental value for him. Plus he’s a NY Times crossword addict. When my husband was laid off in December 2008 (and no, he still doesn’t have a job so let me know if you’re hiring), I suggested we stop the paper to save money. His reaction (and my timing) was the same. That’s how much the Sunday paper means to him.

We, along with our almost 9-year old son, saw Avatar yesterday. It’s a beautiful movie with an environmental message that will hopefully touch the hearts of even the most eco-unconscious.

After the movie, the idea of the Sunday paper came to mind again (it was a Sunday, after all). What was the environmental cost? As we pulled out of the parking lot, I posed the question once more. The timing, I thought, couldn’t be more perfect. HOWEVER… “We’ve already gone over this,” was my husband’s response. Was it me, or was there an ever so slight hesitation before his words punched my ears?

“What are you going to do when you read in bed and fall asleep?” my son piped in. “Your laptop won’t shut down and it could fall off the bed!” He continued, “You’re wasting electricity.”

“But it’s expensive,” I pointed out. My husband was certain that one cannot access all of the Sunday paper online without paying. Hmmmm. Not knowing whether his statement was true shut me up. Until I had all the facts, my argument really had no chance.

Today I did a bit of digging to determine just how bad the Sunday paper was and whether reading it instead online was the better option for the earth. I came across some good news and some bad news. Some very bad news…

  • 500,000 trees must be cut down just to produce each week’s Sunday newspaper (all US Sunday papers combined)
  • In total last year, newsprint consumption in the US meant a loss of 95 million trees, generation of 126 BILLION gallons of waste water and emission of 73 BILLION pounds of greenhouse gases. OUCH!
  • Recycling a single run of the Sunday NY Times would save 75,000 trees.
  • If all newspaper was recycled–including the daily papers–we’d save about 250 MILLION trees each year.
  • About 65% of U.S. newsprint is sourced from ecologically important forests in the US and Canada, including the Canadian Boreal Forest–a global treasure, the last frontier of northern forest wilderness. VERY BAD.
  • In 1989, the newspaper recycling rate was 35%. Today, over 73% of all old newspapers in the US are recovered and recycled.
  • The average amount of recycled fiber content in newsprint used by US newspapers has increased from 10% in 1989 to about 35% today. If that was increased to 50%, we’d save 24 million mature trees annually–enough energy to power 212,000 homes and enough solid waste to fill 68,000 garbage trucks! Holy smokestack.
  • Not only have old newspapers been used to produce recycled newsprint, newspapers are recycled into other products like cereal boxes, egg cartons, pencil barrels, grocery bags (don’t mind my interjection, but it’s better to use a reusable shopping bag), tissue paper, cellulose insulation materials and more. (sounds great if you didn’t read all of the preceding points).

All that was great information, but how would the impact of reading the Sunday Times in paper compare with online? This seemed like a rocket science project that I would be unable to even begin. Fortunately, I found an article in Slate‘s The Green Lantern, a source I trust, on this very subject. They believe reading online is a greener choice, although the environmental impact between dead-tree newspapers and their online editions is a lot smaller than you may think. The Lantern did point out that there are many experts who contend that traditional newsprint ultimately comes out ahead in terms of net carbon-dioxide emissions. Afterall, it takes servers and desktops to make online newspapers possible. Plus the electricity required to power the end user’s computer. What this research didn’t account for was two people reading the paper online on two separate computers vs. just one paper version (note: I never read the Sports section).

Regardless of which comes out ahead from a carbon footprint standpoint, how am I to live with the fact that printing newspapers means logging in old-growth forests that, even if replanted tree-for-tree, can never truly be replaced? It’s not just trees, but displaced wildlife, the negative impact to livelihoods of indigenous communities. Then there’s the health impact for residents living near U.S. plantations –they’re exposed to harmful chemicals from aerial sprays of toxic fertilizers and herbicides.

In the meantime, there is a bright light in all of this. The Green Press Initiative is committed to advancing sustainable patterns of production and consumption within the U.S. newspaper and book industries. In fact, they’re pushing for the increase of recycled fiber content to 50%. That means for those who cannot or are unwilling to convert to reading the paper online, the environmental impact of paper could be far less in the future.

My husband will read this. Maybe then he’ll change his mind. If not, I’ll keep working on him. I can’t divorce him over this–that would only mean a pile of legal paperwork (probably not on recycled paper), trips to a lawyer in two separate cars … and, after all was said and done, he’d continue to get the Sunday paper.

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