pushing paper

The art of paper making is deceptively simple. Take any pulpy substance, used office paper will do nicely, and mix it in a blender with water.

The art of paper making is deceptively simple.

Take any pulpy substance, used office paper will do nicely, and mix it in a blender with water.

The result will be soup-like mash known as pulp.

Fill a small handbasin with it, and then dip in it a small mesh covered screen.

The mesh of the screen should be as small or smaller than typical mosquito netting.

Slowly lift the screen out of the basin.

The fibres in the pulp will stay on top of the mesh, and the water will drip through the screen.

Because the fibres interlock they will form a new piece of paper if left to dry on the screen.

There are all sorts of variations and adaptations to the paper-making process, but what is described above shows the simplicity of it.

Compare that simplicity with how a typical piece of paper gets recycled and made into a new piece of paper in the ‘real’ world.

When a piece of office paper gets used in Whitehorse, it can be recycled.

Some companies contract with recycling services to have it picked up, others take it down to a recycling centre themselves.

Employees are required to do this, and they in turn need vehicles to get to the recycling centre.

There it gets baled into half-tonne blocks using a very large and very expensive compactor.

The bales eventually shipped down south to a mill usually near Edmonton or Vancouver for processing into a new piece of paper.

It is hard to imagine, but for a piece of paper to be recycled it has to get placed on an 18-wheel truck and carried over 2,500 kilometres of paved road.

All this infrastructure and associated ecological footprint is needed just to get it to a paper recycling mill.

Note that it is often cheaper to use freshly cut and chipped trees, the source of the original pulp, to make paper rather than to use recycled paper.

Such is the value modern society puts on living, breathing forests.

So somewhere in the world a tree gets chopped down, usually as part of a clearcutting operation, and sent to a pulp and paper mill.

Sometimes bales of recycled paper product are added to the process, sometimes they are not.

No matter what the feedstock is, by use of lots of capital intensive machinery and industrial chemicals paper can be made.

It is similar in process to what was described at the beginning of this column, except multiplied many times in industrial intensity.

That also means a huge environmental impact as well. All for a piece of paper.

Of course, the finished product is a lot more uniform than what a person can make by hand.

This machined product is suitable for photocopiers and printers.

It gets packaged and then trucked back up the Alaska Highway to some office in Whitehorse where it gets used and perhaps then picked up for recycling.

Then it gets baled and the cycle repeats.

Except now the whole planet is in an economic recession, and the recycling system has become remarkably unprofitable.

Very little used paper is currently being recycled, or if it is the financial costs involved are causing grave losses to recycling operations everywhere.

To help out recycling operations everywhere, consumer demand could ensure greater use of recycled paper.

When paper is purchased for printers and photocopiers an office procurement policy can state that only paper made from recycled paper can be purchased.

There are different definitions of recycling when it comes to purchasing paper.

A high percentage of post-consumer content is what should be looked for.

This means the paper is made from previously used paper.

The obvious solution to dealing with the dilemma of should one buy recycled paper or brand new paper is to duck the issue completely and do no purchasing at all.

Back when computer networks were being introduced the term paperless office was often heard.

Memo’s and reports did not have to be printed, they could be electronically sent to one and all.

Unfortunately, every computer seems to come with a printer, or at least access to one, and it has been a paper whirlwind ever since.

Government, businesses and others can minimize the amount of paper being printed by having office procedures dictating that printers and photocopiers should be used as little as possible.

Electronic communications and document transfer should be emphasized over printing.

One final thing can be done to reduce paper usage, and thus minimize the amount that needs to be recycled.

Do what this newspaper does, and use both sides of the page.

Lewis Rifkind is a Whitehorse based part-time environmentalist.