Recycycling newspapers leads to fewer trees?

Being green is not easy or simple!

A recent tweet from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality suggested that if every American recycled 10 percent of their newspapers, 25 million trees would be saved annually. This sounds like an easy way to be green and protect the environment. However, Michigan State University Extension examined the issue more deeply. Where does newsprint come from and what is the process for recycling newsprint? 

First, news print primarily from virgin pulp is produced by southern pine tree plantations. Since these trees are grown as a crop which is harvested every 7-10 years, if the demand for virgin pulp declines, or is viewed as declining, the producers will not replant new trees after harvest. Instead, they will plant alternative crops on those acres; in the South, that may be soybeans, peanuts, corn, etc. In this sense, recycling newsprint will not save trees, it will only lead to fewer trees and thus less carbon sequestratation.

In addition, recycling newsprint creates other environmental concerns. First, because the process requires emulsification of the paper it utilizes more water than the production of virgin pulp and requires the discharge of the waster water as well as the sludge that remains after the production of new pulp. This discharge water and sludge contains a variety of contaminants from the de-inking process including heavy metals which are an ingredient in many inks. 

While not protecting the environment, recycling newspapers is also quite costly. The additional collection costs for recycling can run up to over $900 per ton for curbside recycling while collection points can lower this to $200-$400 per ton, that is still several times greater than the cost of including newspapers into the regular trash collection. While some might suggest that the old newspapers have value, that value is very low (less than a few dollars per ton) and sometimes can be negative. Some communities pick up newspapers at considerable cost and then, because there is no market for the product, pay to have it taken to a landfill for disposal.

While recycling newspapers may make us feel “greener,” more environmentally-sensitive and a partner to a more sustainable future, the reality is that recycling newsprint is expensive, will lead to fewer acres of trees and does not assist in the protection of the environment, in terms of pollution and carbon sequesteration.

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