Ecological Footprint Hazards
Our increasingly paperless society has a gigantic ecological footprint. Tablets, laptops, desktops, cellphones and fiber optic data transmission networks which may all replace paper in some ways, not only take vast amount of energy to produce and function; their operation requires the use of rare earth elements (REE’s). And herein lies the conservation conundrum because the extraction and use of REEs devastates the environment.
REE’s must be extracted from the ground through open pit mining which involves digging out large areas of land to substantial depths and bringing these materials to a location for the extraction. The mining consumes large amounts of fossil fuels, results in air and water pollution and leaves behind scarred ecosystems. During extraction, REEs are separated from the geological material that encrusts them using water, solvents, chemicals, and toxic materials which my pollute the air, ground, or water with terrible consequences. The unwanted rocky leftovers often contain radioactive material, which tends to be found in the same deposits as the REEs.
It is unusual to find REEs in concentrations high enough for economical extraction and the supply is declining. They have special properties that are crucial to our modern devices and are irreplaceable since synthetics do not exist. There are no substitutes for REEs. Also, electronics contain hazardous substances like cadmium, leas and mercury which can poison the soil and water.
Although only tiny amounts of REEs may be used in each device, at a global scale the amounts are enormous. For examples, a typical cell phone contains a little over 0.1 ounce of neodymium (in the tiny rechargeable battery in the screen), and europium, terbium, and yttrium (in the liquid crystal display screen). In the US alone, there are roughly as many cell phones as people and therefore 1000 tons of REEs are embedded in just one kind of device. Worldwide, close to 150,000 tons of REEs are used every year in the manufacture of electronic devices and instruments.
The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that most people obtain a new cell phone about every 18 months and that only 1-10% of cell phones are recycled in the US. The rest end of in landfills as electronic waste. In 2005, about 65000 tons of electronic waste in the US was from cell phones or less 1% of the electronic waste generated by the US.
We live in an era where the constant demand for more and better electronic devices demand and require more REEs as well as more electricity for both manufacture and use of the multiple devices. This results in an impact on the ecological footprint.
Ecological Footprint Benefits of Using Recycled Paper Products
White paper production does have a cost but it also has the following unique inherent sustainable features over many other products, for example electronics:
1. It is made from natural and renewable raw materials, trees, which are the product of soil, water and sunlight and can be re-harvested, re-planted and used indefinitely if forests are managed properly.
2. Paper helps to increase levels of literacy and democracy worldwide and plays and important role in protecting goods and foodstuffs during transit.
3. Paper is one of the most recycled commodities in the world with levels of over 65% recovery in North America and paper can be recycled 6-7 times to make new paper products.
4. Paper production is one of the highest users of renewable energy, with over 65% of energy coming from renewable sources as biomass.
5. Well managed and third party certified forests provide numerous environmental, social and economic benefits throughout North America, including protection of air and water and acting as a carbon sink to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
6. Paper and paperboard recovery in 2013 resulted in a reduction of 149 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to removing 31 million cards from the road in one year.
Ecological Footprint Alternatives
Two studies on the ecological footprint have found that paperless initiatives do not save trees. The loss of markets for paper and other wood products, a large portion of which are produced from wood harvested on privately owned land, increased the risk of forest lost. The number of trees on managed forest lands has been increasing considerably over the last 60 years due to responsible forestry practices. Wood is a valuable renewable resource . Even in a declining market for printing and writing paper means:
a. Using less paper does not mean that wood harvesting will be reduced
b. Similar or rising volumes of wood are being harvested in key forest regions of North America for other sues including lumber, fuel pellets and pulp for use in production of packaging, tissues and textiles
c. The market focus is likely to shift to other opportunities besides paper given the broad utility of wood, global needs for raw materials and incentives of many forest owners to derive income from their lands.
Private forest ownership and stable paper markets create a synergy that has long yielded tens of thousands of jobs, rural income and strong incentives for continued investment in forests for the near and long term. However, if efforts to reduce wood markets succeed over a long period of time, the result will likely be a loss of forest lands rather than the reverse.
North American forests are a global resource providing critical renewable raw materials for a variety of societal needs. Large areas of these forests are managed by millions of individual landowners, many of whom rely on their forest for income. Without a market for wood from pulp and paper manufacturers, significant numbers of landowners will turn to different markets or perhaps reduce investment in tree planting. Should markets for wood simply dry up, then there is a very real likelihood of land conversions to other uses such as urban development or agriculture result in the trees being cleared for these other applications.
It is important to understand that forest resources are used for many different products in addition to paper. For example, in the south US, forest landowner have embraced the emergence of a growing bioenergy industry that produces fuel pellets from wood. The new bioenergy industry is currently consuming a quantity of wood equivalent to about 16% of that going into pulp and paper production, up from 0% in 2008. Canada has seen a steep decline in paper production, and the use of pulpwood for papermaking due to mill closures over the past decade. However, harvesting rates have remained the same or increased due to the acceptance by saw mills of new markets for pulp in making textiles in India and energy pellets. The energy pellets serve an export market that is seeking lower carbon production of energy supplies. Rather than asking which is better, paper or electronic communication, we should be working to determine which combination of the two has the least impact on the environment while meeting social and economic needs.