Dear Dot: Should I Burn Paper or Send it to Landfill?

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Dear Dot,

I am charged with supplying toilet paper in public toilets. This consists of replacing eighty to 100 rolls per week, leaving me with 80 – 100 tubes and wrappers. Which is worse for the environment, to burn them (CO2) or landfill (methane)? These are the only feasible choices due to location.

—Cary Gilbert

The Short Answer: Recycling paper is always your best option but when it’s not available, burning is preferable to landfill in large part because it produces less methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Dear Cary,

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This is an interesting question and produced an answer that surprised me. Dot called in the calvary on this question, in the form of Bluedot’s intrepid intern, Emily Cain. Of course, recycling is the first, best option for all your tubes and wrappers — although, Emily discovered, of almost sixty-eight million tons of paper and cardboard produced in 2018 (the most recent year for which the EPA seems to have data), just forty-six million tons was recycled. Which tells us that about one-third of the paper produced in 2018 ended up in landfill or an incinerator. Which would have been better?

Paper is made from wood, making it a biomass material, Emily pointed out. Consequently, burning it emits greenhouse gasses, such as methane and CO2. But paper frequently also has inks, chlorine bleaching, and heavy metals. So burning it also releases polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, alkynes, and organohalides. They sound bad, don’t they, Cary? And indeed they are. These have the potential to negatively impact the ozone layer, human respiratory and dietary health, as well as soil, vegetation, and water.

If the incinerator being used, however, turns waste to energy, that offers some solace. After all, I’d rather sip lemonade than suck on a lemon.  

Sending those tubes and wrapping to landfill seems the least preferable option, in large part because the decomposition process produces a greenhouse gas — largely methane (indeed, landfills account for nearly 17 percent or 122.6 million metric tons of the total anthropogenic methane emissions across the United States). Methane, though rarer than the reviled CO2, is significantly more potent. So less is definitely more … and not in a good way.

As Emily put it in a nutshell, landfilling paper is more dangerous to the environment than burning paper.

Apparently, however, those of us tasked with disposing of paper (your superiors, Cary?) haven’t received the methane memo. Four times more paper is landfilled rather than burned, Emily lamented.

You told me in a subsequent email, Cary, that, unfortunately, trucking all these tubes and wrappers home to where you do have recycling simply isn’t an option due to the sheer volume. I do urge you to try and persuade the powers-that-be to try to find a way to recycle their waste, and also to begin using recycled toilet paper (Cascades produces a 100% recycled post-consumer waste version that is available commercially). Recycled toilet paper ensures that no trees are dying so that others may wipe their butts. 

The rest of us should also pledge to purchase only recycled toilet paper (or another eco-friendly alternative) for our homes, so that the needs of our tushies don’t prevent Canada’s Boreal forest from remaining home to endangered caribou. 

Posteriorly,

Dot

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