by Ruaidhrí Saulnier
When I was preparing to sit for my leaving cert before it got cancelled, my chemistry teacher often told me, “We’re not here to save the planet.” While this remark sounds odd, it relates to the fact that I would try and squeeze in as much information as possible onto one sheet of paper, answering as many questions as possible. The result was an illegible mess made worse by poor handwriting. What I was encouraged to do, and I still do now, is one question per page, more if needed. While I cannot remember much from leaving cert chemistry, I do remember that statement, and often repeat it when doing things which seem to be wasteful, as a bid to attempt to save my soul from going to environmental hell.
The good news is that Ireland is below the European average for paper consumption per capita, with slightly more than half our closest neighbours, the UK. However, there is still room to improve here. Is there a way to move past paper? There are paper alternatives on the market, which reduce paper usage, as well as increase organisation and the notes taken sync straight to the cloud. Tablets and laptops, among others, are all frequent sights in the lecture halls I frequent. While they may be significantly more expensive than a refill pad and pen, this may be a cost that must be considered, especially if you are unfamiliar with how they source their materials to make the devices. You may still have some papers, but most of those papers were created on a computer, and a soft copy can be requested if it is not already available on blackboard.
One tree goes far in the paper business, giving 16.67 reams or 8,333 sheets of paper. What are the other costs associated with making paper? To make one kilogram of paper, 324 litres of water is needed. One ream of 500 sheets weighs around two and a half kilograms. To turn one tree into paper requires 12,152 litres of water.
This seems high, some paper production plants recycle their water over and over, and in the more efficient water plants of Europe where no water isn’t recycled, it only requires approximately ten to twenty-five litres to make one kilogram. In addition to this, virgin paper generates 1.2 kg of CO2 for every kilogram of paper produced.
“4.1 million hectares of forest being cut down annually, an area the size of the Netherlands, just for paper.”
Recycled paper, such as the paper this is printed on, if you are reading the printed version requires 44% less energy and creates 50% less wastewater to manufacture. It also generates 42% fewer CO2 emissions. One ton of recycled paper conserves more than just one natural resource. As a matter of fact, it will save 26500 litres of water, 1750 litres of oil, and 17 trees in the process.
With the figures above and a few assumptions, we can calculate the amount of paper used in Trinity, with the figures a bit rounded down. We have previously stated that one tree produced 8,333 sheets of paper, and there are approximately 13,360 undergraduate students in this college. An exam booklet has eight sheets of paper. We will assume a third of these need additional paper and that ten exams are sat each year. In addition to the answer booklet, exam papers must also be printed whose length is three pages long.
This means that 1,421,504 sheets of paper are needed for booklets, and 400,800 sheets of paper are needed for exam papers, for a total of 1,822,304 sheets. At 8,333 sheets per tree, this means that 219 trees must be cut down for the two exam sessions. And this number is just exams, meaning the actual amount of trees needed is likely much higher. Admin work, printing, society posters, labs, tutorials that must be handed in in person, and more all need many sheets of paper, and that 219 figure could very easily double. The advent of software like chatGPT has shown that there is a need for examinations which do not allow for this cheating to occur, but a balance must be struck between entirely online, near paper-free exams and in-person paper-heavy exams, but we are still far away from a perfect solution.
14% of all deforestation is done to satisfy humanity’s paper needs. While this figure includes other items made of paper pulp, such as paper cups, this is still very high. This figure corresponds to 4.1 million hectares of forest being cut down annually, an area the size of the Netherlands, just for paper. The trees cut down are also fast-growing monocultures, which tend to replace older forests in the name of profits. When regrowing forests, biodiversity must be at the forefront of the regrowing. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and as such, profits tend to be prioritised instead. Eucalyptus trees are some of the trees that are used for this purpose. They are fast-growing and good for making wood pulp, but they also make it hard for other types of trees to grow near them and are not favoured by insects. In addition, their natural oils make them highly flammable. In some of the areas in which they are grown, particularly the hotter ones, this often causes forest fires which can turn into deadly affairs.
If Trinity is serious about its carbon neutrality, its paper use should be examined and improved.