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Ask the GreenMan

The GreenMan | Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Dear GreenMan,

Does recycling an Observer really save a polar bear?

Skeptical in Sorin

Dear Skeptical,

Skepticism is an understandable response to the bold ad run in this publication last week, which asserted that “Every recycled Observer saves a polar bear” (Jan. 31, p. 9).

In the first place, we typically think of saving trees as the primary benefit of recycling paper. However, the reduction in deforestation that would result from recycling newspapers does little to help our polar friends, since polar bears live on ice floes, not in forests (with the exception of a few notable fictional polar bears on the island on Lost).

Fortunately, recycling paper does more than just decrease deforestation by reducing demand for virgin paper products. According to EPA and Paper Industry Association Council estimates, recycling one ton of paper saves 7,000 gallons of water, 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space, and enough energy to power the average American household for six months, in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by one metric ton of carbon equivalent (MTCE).

Now let’s consider these statistics in the context of The Observer: The Observer circulates 9,000 copies daily, five days a week during the academic year (with 13,000 copies on home football Fridays). This amounts to about 1,468,000 copies of The Observer printed each year. Using the conservative estimate that 10 copies of The Observer weigh one pound, this means that the Observer circulates about 73.4 tons of newspaper to the campus community annually.

Applying the estimates above, this means that recycling all of The Observers printed in a single academic year would save more than half a million gallons of water, free up more than 240 cubic yards of landfill space, save enough energy to power the average American home for more than 35 years, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 73 MTCE.

So how does this help save polar bears? Polar bears have become one of the most recognizable symbols of campaigns to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change, because their Arctic home is warming much faster than other regions of the globe. The resulting loss of sea ice habitat has caused the U.S. Department of the Interior to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act.

While recycling your Observer is a good start to decreasing your greenhouse gas emissions and helping the polar bears, it’s only the beginning.

Certain methods of reducing your carbon footprint have probably been pounded into your head: ride bikes or walk instead of driving, use less electricity, carpool, recycle. But one of the more neglected avenues is to change your day-to-day purchasing decisions. I’m not talking about big-time decisions like buying a hybrid instead of an SUV. I’m talking about simple things picking a spiral notebook with 100 percent post-consumer recycled content instead of a Five Star® notebook with a glossy plastic cover. (After all, recycling this Observer is only helpful if someone is willing to buy the recycled product it’s made into!)

Sometimes choosing the most eco-friendly product on the shelf seems clear: which notebook has the highest percentage of recycled content? But in fact, it’s rarely so simple. What if that 100 percent recycled content notebook was made in China and had to be shipped thousands of miles just to end up on that shelf? What if the recycled paper underwent an extensive (and highly toxic) bleaching process before being bound in the notebook? Suddenly, evaluating a product’s environmental impact doesn’t seem so simple anymore.

Deciphering products’ green claims and assessing their true environmental impact are exactly the kinds of issues that will be up for debate later this month at the Fourth Annual Green Summit. The topic of the forum is “Purchasing Power” and discussion will revolve around assessing the environmental impact of consumers’ everyday purchases of items like cell phones, T-shirts and even spiral notebooks.

Here’s hoping South Bend’s ice melts, but the sea ice doesn’t!

The GreenMan

Have a question about the environment or how to go green in your personal life? Ask the GreenMan! Seriously. The GreenMan will be here every other week to answer your eco-related questions: email askthegreenman@gmail.com

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.