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US: Virtual rubbish bin


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The mountains of junk mail, food packaging, office waste and other paper products Americans throw away amount to 37% of the country’s municipal solid waste.

US paper consumption has more than tripled since 1960, with the typical American now using 347 kilograms of paper every year – more than 50 times the amount the average African uses.

The industrialised world’s paper habit is usually associated with the trees the pulp industry consumes. But concerns also include the chlorine based chemicals often used to bleach paper, to the space it takes up in landfills and the greenhouse gases released if it is incinerated.

Paper cannot be recycled indefinitely. The fibres break down each time it is recycled – which can be done about five times. Today’s crisp correspondence reappears as, for example, newsprint, then toilet paper. So even if all paper was recycled, new trees would still be needed, although each one would go further.

Manufacturing a tonne of recycled office paper and recycling it at the end of its lifespan reduces:
solid waste by 49%
energy consumption by 43%
net greenhouse gas emissions by 70%
hazardous air pollutant emissions by 90%
particulate emissions by 40%
absorbable organic halogen emissions to water by 100%
suspended solids by 30%
(Source: Environmental Defense Fund)
The proportion of paper recycled in the US has increased steadily - from 18% in 1960 to more than 45% in 2000. But this has not risen fast enough to offset increased consumption, which means that the nation is still abandoning more paper to landfills and incineration than it was 40 years ago.

But growth in recycling will not continue unless it is matched by an increase in demand for recycled paper products. Manufacturers say they still face a marketing battle against consumer perceptions that recycled products are of lower quality than their virgin paper equivalents. They are also experimenting with other uses for recycled paper, such as thermal insulation and animal bedding.

Ultimately, though, the environmental impact of paper consumption could be reduced fastest simply by cutting down on, for example, the 19.5 million mail order catalogues the US gets through every year.

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