Why Is Paper So Tear-ible?

Our schools remain paper-dominated despite the economic and environmental consequences; digitization provides a solution with numerous advantages.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Paper is everywhere, from the 200-page composition notebooks we use to take class notes to the dozens of handouts we are given each day to the flyers posted in the hallways. Walking past any department room, one can hear the printer's constant buzz as it shoots out hundreds of copies, all destined for the trash. 

The concept of a transportable medium to express ideas originates back to the papyrus of Ancient Egypt, a writing surface similar to thick paper. However, it wasn’t until the Han Dynasty in China that the first modern-day paper sheets were created using fishnets, bark, and plant fibers. Compiling plant fibers orthogonally, the Chinese would dampen and press them until they formed a cohesive unit, which would then be held together using tree sap. Nowadays, the process is significantly more complex. 

After trees are logged, they are transported to facilities where they are debarked, washed to remove impurities, and sliced into tiny cubes. For more refined paper-making, which produces the paper used in schools, a process called chemical pulping is implemented. The most popular form of chemical pulping is the kraft process. Wood chips are heated in alkaline solutions of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide to allow the lignin, organic polymers that form structural materials in the plant’s support tissues, to break down. The lignin is then separated, leaving the wood in the form of a brown pulp consisting of the tree’s cellulose fibers. 

From there, the pulp is whitened using bleaching agents and diluted with water and various chemicals, such as chlorine gas and hypochlorite. Described as a “pulp slurry” due to its mushy texture, the contents are evenly distributed across a flat surface into a rectangular shape. During the sheet formation process, the surface on which the pulp lies moves atop a conveyor at speeds of dozens of kilometers an hour. Water is also continuously drained from the pulp, eventually leaving behind rolls of dry paper that are 80 kilometers long and nine meters in diameter. From these rolls, sheets of all dimensions are cut depending on consumer needs. 

After this long process, the paper is packaged into reams and shipped around the world. On average, each American school uses around 320,000 sheets of paper a year. With over 100,000 schools in the U.S., the total number of sheets used adds up to over 32 billion annually. Despite the seeming insignificance of a single sheet, the constant use of paper greatly impacts both school budgets and the environment. 

A single sheet of paper is approximately five cents, meaning schools spend roughly $100 a day and $16,000 a year on paper, and the U.S. school system as a whole spends $1.6 billion. These funds could be directed toward student support, maintenance costs, food services, and more if they were not spent on paper. In addition to the cost of paper production included in the price of the final good, schools need to pay for the cost of paper disposal. Almost 40 percent of waste in landfills consists of paper products, and an estimated 85 million tons of paper waste is produced each year. In 2020, it was estimated that $54 million was spent by schools on paper disposal. 

In an era facing the devastating impacts of climate change and limited resources, using tons of paper seems inefficient. In 2022, the pulp and paper sector produced 23 million metric tons of carbon emissions. These emissions partially stem from the combustion emissions released in paper production. However, the main culprit of this staggering figure is the cutting down of trees. 

Since each tree can only supply 16 to 17 reams (8,000 pages) of paper, thousands of trees are cut down daily and millions annually to meet demand. Throughout a tree’s life cycle, it absorbs carbon into its trunk to serve as carbon reservoirs. These reservoirs disperse back into the air after the tree’s death. Once in the air, excess carbon, a greenhouse gas, is trapped in the atmosphere. The resulting build-up forms a blanket around the Earth that traps sun rays. This inevitably contributes to the rise of global temperatures.

In response to these issues, recycling paper has become increasingly common. When a sheet of paper is recycled, it is taken to a recycling center, where it is sorted by type (printing paper, wrapping paper, etc.). From there, it is washed with soap, shredded, and repulped. Despite its popularity, the recycling process is expensive. In 2021, the cost of recycling residential paper was $117 dollars per ton, while for office papers it was $164 dollars per ton.

There is a solution, however: digitization, the process of converting physical mediums into digital copies. Digitization is already happening on a large scale, from digitized textbooks to online forms. In the modern age, increasing reliance on technology has made this transition feel more and more natural. Yet despite the economic and environmental impacts of our high paper consumption, our world remains largely paper-reliant. 

Going digital not only allows for easier access to documents online but also makes the organization and categorization of paperwork more efficient in the long run. Busy places like schools and businesses are dominated with hundreds of miscellaneous files that need to be tracked. Through digitization, organization not only requires less manpower but also a lot less time, since everything is kept within a centralized system. Digital documents are a lot safer and less prone to theft and human error. 

As a society, we should be taking steps towards digitization over paper consumption, both due to the economic and environmental downsides of paper production and the benefits of digitization. As students, we hold individual responsibilities towards making this a reality. Firstly, to promote digitization, we have to find ways to limit the amount of paper we use. This can be accomplished by taking class notes on a computer or even just asking for digital textbooks rather than physical ones. It is also important to spread the word about the downsides of paper consumption. Send out messages promoting digitization—digitally, of course.