Looking at a tree, you might have a difficult time visualizing how something so tall and strong could be turned into something as thin and weak as a sheet of paper. Different physical and chemical processes are involved to get the desired thickness of papers we use for our day to day activities.
Trees are very important to our ecosystem and environment as they beautify our surroundings, reduce pollution, lower energy costs, prevent erosion and increase the value of our lives and properties. One other very important use of trees is the production of paper. Worldwide, it is estimated that over 400 million metric tons of paper is produced annually.
This translates into a staggering number of trees being felled to produce that amount of paper.
Time Magazine in 2012 published an article ‘Seeing the forest and the trees, all 3 trillion of them’ from a Yale University researcher Thomas Crowther with shocking statistics. People cut down 15 billion trees each year and this has contributed to the reduction of global tree count by 46% since the beginning of human civilization.
The rapid and sustained deforestation around the world due to paper production puts the world at risk of increased global warming, extinction of wildlife due to destruction of natural habitats, increased flooding, and other adverse effects on human life.
With the rate of paper production and the resultant effect on our planet, does this mean we are gradually reading and writing ourselves into extinction? What alternatives exist to paper and how viable are they? We need books as much as we need the trees in our environment. However we may not necessarily need to cut down trees to produce books if we want a sustainable ecosystem and help protect our ozone layer.
What is the Way Forward?
The main alternative to printed books is electronic books (also known as e-books). Electronic books are versions of books which can be read on computers (desktops, laptops and tablets), smartphones or other specialized devices known as e-readers.
The idea of e-books came up in the 1930’s and has gained popularity, with companies such as Barnes & Noble (a publishing house) and Amazon (one of the world’s largest retailers) making ebooks commercially available and selling customized electronic devices for reading such books. Barnes & Noble sells the Nook Reader, while Amazon sells the Kindle.
In a report which analyzed the Amazon Kindle’s impact on the environment, it was suggested that on the average, the carbon emitted over the life of the device is offset after the first year of use. “It’s not just buying e-books that matters,” said the report’s author, Emma Ritch, of San Francisco-based Cleantech Group. “The key is that they displace the purchase of 22.5 physical books.” Ms. Ritch said.
The report emphasizes that printed books have the highest per-unit carbon footprint and concluded that purchasing three e-books per month for four years yields roughly 168 kilograms of CO2 throughout the Kindle’s lifecycle, compared to the estimated 1,074 kilograms of CO2 produced by the same number of printed books.
With the proliferation of e-books, will felling of trees come to an end and will our surroundings be as green as ever again?