Paper Profits on the Death of a Dream

As early as 1975, experts were promising us that the personal-computer, or PC revolution, would create a paperless society.

We have yet to see that happen, and companies like Wausau-Mosinee Paper Corp. (WPP – $7.96) continue to pollute waterways with their manufacturing and recycling processes. The manufacturing portion is an inevitable result of need, and the fault lies squarely on the shoulders of consumers. The paper recycling process is an environmental initiative driven in a dangerous direction by profit margins (read capitalism).

In 1827, the first industrial paper-making machine was built in the U.S., based on a design created by a Frenchman named Nicholas Louis Robert. Industrial paper production combined with industrial print capabilities in the 1800’s provided the impetus for printing all manner of documents. The trend continues today, spurred to new heights by the sheer volume of information available on the Internet.

Unfortunately, that information is at the mercy of fickle electronics, and can disappear from a local PC or the World Wide Web tomorrow if systems fail. People print because paper is a more reliable retention method, and paper mills continue making paper to fill the demand of exploding populations and expanding sources of information.

Unfortunately, the paper we use comes from trees, and these trees provide a more important function than paper; they absorb the carbon dioxide (CO2) that helps cause global warming. Granted, trees are planted to replace those cut down, but this doesn’t create more trees. In effect, the tree population remains stable while global warming increases. Granted, also, that most paper mills use wood scrap and sawdust to manufacture. Even so, paper accounts for almost 30 percent of the volume of trees cut down, and the slight decline in U.S. paper use since 1999, primarily due to recycling, does not mitigate the effect of an expanding population. Worldwide, paper use is expected to increase almost 50 percent over today’s levels by the year 2040.

Here are some interesting statistics:

  • Americans discard enough paper annually to build a 12-foot high wall from New York to San Francisco.
  • There are about 500 paper mills in the U.S.
  • Recycling one ton of paper saves on average 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water and about 4,000 kilowatt hours of energy.
  • It also prevents about 587 pounds of air pollution and keeps more than three cubic yards of waste out of landfills.

Recycling paper, however, has mixed benefits. U.S. recycling efforts capture about 70 percent of discarded paper, keeping it out of landfills where it does not degrade as rapidly or effectively as once supposed. Unfortunately, recycling paper often involves the use of chlorine dioxide, a bleaching agent (and chemical weapon), and this creates dioxins.

In 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency said that dioxins did not present a health hazard. In 2006, the EPA reversed its position, admitting that dioxins did, indeed, have a negative effect on biological systems (their effect on plants is not yet documented). The 2006 assessment clearly outlines the risks of dioxin, which include – but are not limited to – birth defects, the inability to maintain a pregnancy, decreased fertility, endometriosis, diabetes, learning disabilities, immune system failure, lung problems, skin disorders and cancer. The use of paper sludge as compost on commercial croplands merely intensifies these risks.

I point the finger at Wausau because it is regional, but other paper manufacturers like Cascade, Georgia Pacific (recently acquired by Koch Industries), and Weyerhauser – to name but a few – are equally guilty. More important, the bleaching processes currently in use at many paper mills is not necessary, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), since other methods are widely available. Paper mills resist implementing these alternative bleaching methods because the costs – of retrofitting to use ozone as a bleaching agent, or switching to hydrogen peroxide – are greater, and profit is the driving motive behind all business. Last summer, the House Homeland Security Committee agreed to a chemical security bill that incorporated these safer technologies, but the bill never made it to the House.

Wausau Paper, which has branches in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maine, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and New Hampshire, scores in the 90-100th percentile for air and water releases in Minnesota, the 80-90th percentile for air and water releases in Ohio (and the 70-80th percentile for cancer-causing releases), the 80-90th percentile for air and water releases at the Mosinee, Wisconsin factory, and in the 90-100th percentile for developmental releases (and total releases) at its Rhinelander, Wisconsin location. Only the Maine facility falls below this range. Rhinelander, in the northern part of Wisconsin, lies below Lake Superior at the head of the Wisconsin River in a complex watershed running south, and pollutes everything downstream all the way to Chicago and beyond.

Paper manufacturers profit on the death of the paperless dream, but consumers can revive that dream. Use less paper, recycle and refuse to buy recycled product from a manufacturer that still uses a chemical-weapons compound to bleach recycled product. The "good" stuff may cost a little more, but you (and more specifically your children) are worth it. To find out which paper manufacturers should be boycotted, click here and go to to find environmentally certified paper.

Disclosure: I don’t own stock in any paper manufacturing company.

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Paper Factory
Photo:thejesse, Creative Commons, Flickr