If you ask your neighbor to think of some ways in which we can act to preserve the environment, it's pretty sure that recycling will be high on their list. Recycling newspaper has a time-honored history, saving forests from logging for pulp, and keeping tons of newsprint out of landfills.
So it's a shock when someone suggests that recycling that newspaper may actually be harming the environment. According to Richard Muller (Energy for Future Presidents), you might do better throwing that paper in the landfill after all.
The argument goes like this. Take the very large-scale view of what goes on when newspaper goes into the landfill. Trees are planted (most newsprint these days is made from tree "crops" planted for the purpose, not from old growth forests). Then they are cut down, and (after passing briefly through your hands in the form of your daily newspaper) they are buried in the ground. Presto! - carbon sequestration, that is, carbon is removed from the atmosphere and buried in the earth. Global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is reduced, and thus global warming is slowed.
There is nothing wrong with this argument so far as it goes. But of course there is a lot it doesn't take into account. What about the costs (in land, energy, and other ways) of all that extra landfill space? What about landfill-generated methane? What about the fact that landfill constituents will eventually be broken down by bacteria and the carbon re-released? This means that we're not permanently sequestering carbon by this process, just shifting the equilibrium a little bit. I did a back-of-envelope calculation which suggested a less than one percent change in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration from burying the entire global output of newsprint for fifty years.
Apart from technicalities, though, I think the suggestion does us a service by reminding us that recycling is not an environmental panacea. It's simply the worst not-absolutely-terrible option. The other two R's - reduce and reuse - are a great improvement on recycling.
Photo by Flickr user Canton Public Library (MI), licensed under Creative Commons
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