Environmental Consequences of Our Reliance on the Printed Word: Waste and Pollution Are the Result of the Paper That Fuels the Timber Industry. (Journalist's Trade)

By Hancox, Ralph | Nieman Reports, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Environmental Consequences of Our Reliance on the Printed Word: Waste and Pollution Are the Result of the Paper That Fuels the Timber Industry. (Journalist's Trade)


Hancox, Ralph, Nieman Reports


One part of a great conundrum of our time is that, psychologically, the most efficient way to convey literate intellectual property from one mind to another is through the silent reading of words and graphics printed on paper. The printed word virtually defines our society. The first intellectual skill we acquire as children, after learning to talk, is the ability to read. We read to learn, to entertain ourselves, to enlighten our understanding of society and of the universe, to protect our rights and freedoms, and to keep abreast of our times and the discoveries of our contemporaries.

It is no accident, then, that print has become a dominant medium in the transfer of complex information despite the warnings of Marshall McLuhan about the pervasive negative influence on print of radio and television and despite the digital revolutions of the last century.

Paralleling the growth in literacy, and in search of many noble (and occasionally frankly ignominious) objectives, more paper and ink are consumed industrially today than at any time in history. And that consumption shows no signs of abating.

The paradox is that the production of the printed word is arguably the most egregiously wasteful and obsolete industrial process of our age. No other activity in a contemporary industrial society comes as close to the enormous devastation of natural resources, to the accumulation and propagation of redundant information, or to the mountains of discarded rubbish to be disposed of, than the publishing industries.

In the half a century that I have been variously employed in publishing, the depredations of the environment and the problems associated with garbage disposal have mounted almost daily and continue to do so. Environmentalists should take a look in their search for scapegoats at the contribution publishing has made to the accumulation of human detritus and see what is required in the process of transferring intellectual property, via print, on paper.

Paper today, of course, starts with trees. Some plastics are currently used and sc) are a few other natural fibers like cotton, sisal and hemp. But trees are overwhelmingly the base raw material of the printed word. To satisfy the current pulp, paper and lumber demand from Canadian forests we annually cut or clear more than one million hectares of forest growth--approximately 4,000 square miles. The area implicated is equivalent to clearing a parcel of land the boundaries of which stretch from Buffalo, New York, 30 miles north to Niagara Falls, 70 miles east along the shore of Lake Ontario to Rochester, and 85 miles west back to Buffalo twice each year. In Ontario, Canada, we cut or clear an area equivalent to 46 kilometers square (29 miles square) each year. And, in provincial pulp and paper production, we are led only by Quebec in quantity produced.

The trees involved that are "harvested" are at least 25 years old and frequently--as in British Columbia, which is third in provincial output--much older. The cut timber is ground to wood chips for shipment, or is transported directly, to pulp and paper mills to be converted into pulp that is either shipped as such or made directly into paper.

The process of making industrial web paper is at once awesome, miraculous and a prodigious engineering accomplishment. It takes place on industrial papermaking machines--these are about 300 meters in length and 60 meters wide--and consume immense amounts of natural water that is discharged back into the environment, after the papermaking process, as a largely sulfurous effluent. Engineering has not yet provided an adequate solution to disposing of the noxious effluent that the process produces. That is yet to come.

In 1999, Canadian shipments of pulp and paper amounted to some 31 million metric tons, with sales of $22 billion (Canadian). Last year, Canadian production of newsprint, pulp, packaging and printing and writing papers all increased about 10 percent over the previous year. …

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