Bundle or burn?
February 24, 2008 6:47 AM   Subscribe

Which makes more sense environmentally, heating with our waste paper or recycling it?

We heat primarily with wood, and usually put junk mail, packaging, cardboard, etc. into the wood stove in the winter, rather than recycling it. I know that things using color inks can sometimes have heavy metals, so we do avoid heavily printed materials, or paper or board that has been coated. But does is it create more pollution/waste/carbon by burning this material than it would should we recycle it? I know particulate matter is another concern but other than burning efficiently, anything else we should consider to minimize the particulates we're creating?
posted by Toekneesan to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Must we believe that heating with wood is environmentally friendly to answer this question?
posted by mikel at 7:15 AM on February 24, 2008

Response by poster: I suppose not. Curious as to your concern. Does it make a difference that all of the fuel comes from within ten miles of our home and is renewable? What alternatives would you suggest for someone living remotely?
posted by Toekneesan at 7:32 AM on February 24, 2008

I do something similar. I don't burn all junk mail, but I burn stuff I would normally shred. I recycle the rest of the paper. So I guess I'm replacing the energy that would go into creating and powering a shredder.

Where I live, recycling means loading everything into the car and driving for 30 minutes. I considered burning all the mail but there's a lot of it. So I pile it up and bring it to the recycling center on my once-a-month trip, since I have to go there anyway with my (few) cans and bottles.

For those concerned about wood heat: I have an efficient woodstove, EPA certified, that I burn as hot and cleanly as possible. I usually burn wood from my land. My heating alternatives are propane or coal-fired electricity. My house is small, super-insulated, and has a passive solar design. I designed the house, and my research supported the decision to heat at least partially with wood, but I can't quote all the statistics anymore.

The main arguments for me are that it's a renewable, local source of heat that doesn't require vast industry or war. If we want to compare wood burning to electric or oil, we can't just look at the emissions of an electric plant or the combustion of propane. We have to also look at the energy used and emissions produced by the vast industries that support electric and oil production and transportation.
posted by PatoPata at 8:06 AM on February 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Burning paper means that we need to use fresh wood for new paper, and I saw somewhere (yeah vague I know) that recycling paper uses significantly less water and energy than producing fresh paper. So I would guess recycling is the better way.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:26 AM on February 24, 2008

Paper is a renewable resource just like wood, since it's made from wood. So in terms of the CO2 cycle, it makes no difference whether the carbon in the paper goes into the atmosphere now, or when the next guy burns it or it eventually decomposes in a landfill.

On the other hand, the argument for recycling paper is that making recycled paper takes less energy overall -- there's less transportation cost from forest to mill, less energy used in pulping paper than wood, less energy used in getting the paper to market, since the recycling mills are closer to the markets than the virgin mills and forests.

Complicating this is the energy used by consumers in returning their recyclables to market, and in the local recycling centers where the stuff is cleaned up and sorted. If I drive a couple of miles just to go recycle my newspapers, which I sometimes do, I probably burn up all the energy that might be saved by the recycling of my small batch of paper. This would be avoided if there were curbside municipal recycling where I live.

So those are the pros and cons with regard to energy. You asked also about particulates; my sense is that if you have a good stove setup that's not an issue. Most of the particulates you generate would be little specs of carbon that eventually settle harmlessly somewhere.
posted by beagle at 8:32 AM on February 24, 2008

i used to do this--we were very poor and it was necessary to burn useless paperbacks headed for the recycler sometimes to stretch the time until we could afford to buy wood. (i worked in a used bookstore.)

however, i was very conscious that i was doing a Very Bad Thing. unless you happen to have an industrial scrubber and burn at the temperature level of an incinerator (which you don't), you're polluting your own yard and everyone else's nearby with dioxin.
posted by RedEmma at 8:42 AM on February 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't burn it. Recycle what you have, and tell your mail carrier to stop delivering junk mail.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:08 AM on February 24, 2008

RedEmma: those links refer to burning general garbage, not wood products.
posted by mkb at 9:19 AM on February 24, 2008

Wait, no they don't. Never mind.
posted by mkb at 9:20 AM on February 24, 2008

Response by poster: Well the dioxin issue seems like an excellent reason to exclude bleached paper. Any good reason to exclude non-printed, non-bleached cardboard?

btw, combustion in a wood stove is at a significantly higher temperature than open barrel burning, RedEmma's first link. Some of the issues related to open barrel burning simply don't apply to a wood stove. And we've never burned plastic, even excluded windowed envelopes.
posted by Toekneesan at 9:49 AM on February 24, 2008

If I burn too much paper in my wood stove, the ash builds up much quicker for what seems like not much burning. If I filled my stove with waste paper I'd just have to refill it in minutes. This is why I recycle the paper.
posted by ODiV at 10:03 AM on February 24, 2008

There's not a lot of energy in that paper, and that's a big issue. As soon as I can find a suitable hot water tank, I'll be building one of these and burning the glycerin byproduct of our biodiesel plant and/or used motor oil.
posted by TomMelee at 11:43 AM on February 24, 2008

Toekneesan it actually does make a difference that you're remote and the fuel comes from close by, because wood burning - even with pellets or other high-efficiency wood stoves - is much more polluting than propane... but that calculation very likely gets more equal if you add the transportation costs of the propane (and calculate all the way back to the source, not just your local distributor). For someone that isn't remote and doesn't have woodlots in the immediate vicinity, there is no environmental benefit to heating with wood, in fact the opposite is true.

Taking that out of the equation, though, I think the calculation has to include the fully loaded environmental impact of the paper, which might be pretty high considering the limited energy benefit you get in your stove.
posted by mikel at 11:54 AM on February 24, 2008

Just looking at the carbon issue, burning paper is bad. The carbon in the paper was extracted from the atmosphere by trees. The longer the carbon stays out of the atmosphere the better. In fact it would be better to bury the paper than to burn it (if you could not recycle). This is effectively where coal came from. It was carbon that was permanently extracted from the atmosphere by plants making the earth's atmosphere more amenable to large mammals. If it comes down to burning paper vs cutting down another tree, you may as well burn the paper.

As far as burning wood for heating, even the most efficient and eco-friendly wood burner produces 100 times as much harmful particulates as gas heating. Many small towns, particularly in the west are plagued by very harmful pollution from wood burning stoves. For example in the 1980s testing of third graders in Missoula, Montana showed a 10% reduction in lung function for children in the town where wood burning was rampant, vs those outside the town. They have since restricted wood burning which has reversed the medical effects. Wood burning, at least on a small scale, is carbon neutral, but the particulate pollution effects are enormously bad. Wood burning might only make sense in truly isolated circumstances, not even small towns.
posted by JackFlash at 12:07 PM on February 24, 2008

...tell your mail carrier to stop delivering junk mail.

In the US, it's against the law for them to stop. The junk mailers have paid for delivery, and the law requires the USPS to deliver that junk mail to your mail box.
posted by Class Goat at 12:09 PM on February 24, 2008

Is there a big difference in pollution between burning paper with printing on it and "clean" paper?
posted by Echidna882003 at 1:27 PM on February 24, 2008

Actually, if I was forced to use wood to heat my living space, I would SERIOUSLY build a gassifer, or at least play with the idea.
Like this: youtube or
this: youtube
There are tons of plans available online, journeytoforever even has some. Done correctly, you burn the wood in the absence of oxygen, which leaves behind charcoal (reburnable and environmentall friendly) and puts off a hell of a lot of hydrogen + inert stuff. You can burn the hydrogen directly at the stack to create one helluva lot of heat.
posted by TomMelee at 3:40 PM on February 24, 2008

Depending on how your stove is set up, burning a lot of waste paper in your stove can lead to more buildup of crud in your chimney. If this isn't cleaned out of your chimney, this can lead to a chimney fire that could spread to the rest of your house. This would be bad for the environment, both from the burning of your house and the resources used to build another.

For those who don't feel wood burning in general is efficient when compared to propane, consider that those who heat with wood rarely have the heat on when they are out of the house during the day, and often don't turn the "heat" up as high as those who can flick a switch to get more heat.
posted by yohko at 7:17 PM on February 24, 2008

...have the heat on when they are out of the house during the day, and often don't turn the "heat" up as high as those who can flick a switch to get more heat.

yohko - I see you've met my family!

posted by Echidna882003 at 7:32 AM on February 25, 2008

In fact it would be better to bury the paper than to burn it (if you could not recycle). This is effectively where coal came from.

This is utter rubbish. It would be more accurate to say this is where landfill gas comes from, and landfill gas, if you don't catch it and combust it is much worse than direct combustion in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

As another data source besides RedEmmas, this seems to suggest untreated wood produces much less in the way of dioxin type stuff than burning household waste.
posted by biffa at 9:54 AM on February 26, 2008

« Older Help me find this radiohead photo?   |   We'll never tell. Don't ask again. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.