by Stan Cutler

Most of us put the weight-equivalent of a hefty library book into the recycling bin every week. Day after day, advertisements for credit cards, insurance, cruise lines, retirement homes and solicitations from charities are put into our mailboxes. And let’s not forget the catalogs.

If you’re like me, you glance at the item without reading it and put it in the don’t-give-a-hoot pile. The print-on-paper industry is sustained by the United States Postal Service. There are good reasons why it should not be so.

The post office charges 18 cents to deliver a piece of mail that weighs less than 3.5 ounces – only $18 to reach (and annoy) 100 American households with as much as 22 pounds of paper. Businesses receive bins of junk mail every day, turning mail rooms into costly recycling hubs. We subsidize the paper and advertising industries at enormous environmental cost. Let’s tell our government to raise the rates. 

Paper manufacturing accounts for around 40% of the total waste in the United States (71.6 million tons per year).  The City of Philadelphia’s has allocated $155 million for the Sanitation Department’s 2020 budget. At the 40% estimate for handling paper waste, Philadelphians pay $62 million a year to get rid of paper we didn’t want in the first place. (The Free Library’s 2020 budget allocation is $51 million).

The costs of mitigating the environmental impacts of the paper industry are significant. The paper manufacturers bear the up-front costs if they comply with EPA regulations, paying to neutralize their toxic waste. We pay after-use costs, consumer costs, taxes to clean up the mess.

Around 40%of harvested trees are consumed by paper manufacturers. It takes 17 trees to make a ton of paper. That means nearly 100 million trees get used for junk mail every year. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and carbon dioxide (CO2) are all emitted during paper manufacturing contributing  to acidic rainfall and greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. During production, emissions of hydrogen sulfide, methyl mercaptan, dimethyl sulfide and other volatile sulfur compounds are released into the air. If you’ve been near a paper plant, you know it stinks of sulfur. 

Libraries must convert to digitized content in order to keep pace with media technology. They do so, it must be said, to provide better service to their patrons, not to save trees. I have no objection to the publication of paper books, a tiny and steadily diminishing percentage of the print-on-paper industry. Books, in comparison to junk mail, have a trivial environmental impact.  

Unlike most environmental problems, there is a simple way to reduce the catastrophic impact of paper manufacturing, printing,  delivery, and disposal. Raise the postal rates. By so doing, we save forests, reduce greenhouse gases, remove toxins from the water supply and improve the quality of our lives.  

I chose to deliver this rant because of our next speaker. His topic got me thinking about libraries and their environmental effects, about the paper industry. Don’t miss “Environmental Impacts of Fracking& Plastic Bags,” the next event in the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library’s popular speakers series. Hear environmental engineer Kelly O’Day present evidence of the ways Marcellus shale gas is changing the economics of plastic production and increasing the risks of plastic pollution and climate change. Recently retired from a career as an environmental engineering consultant, he is well-known in scientific circles as a knowledgeable advocate for the environment.

The talk is likely to draw a considerable crowd. If you’d like to be sure of a seat, there is a link on that will allow you to reserve one.