There isn’t a simple answer to this question because, on one hand – as we will see – burning paper might be less resource-intensive than its alternatives.
And as a contributor to climate change, its effect may be less extensive than more prevalent disposal methods.
However, on the other hand, burning paper does have many environmental caveats, from pollutant emissions to toxicity.
While we can’t make a definitive judgment on whether it is entirely bad or not, here’s a few factors to keep in mind before you burn your old documents.
1. Is Burning Paper Eco-Friendly?
Burning paper can be eco-friendly in some circumstances.
The main example of how it might be beneficial is if it is incinerated at a commercial level, where the energy of the burning process is captured and stored or used.
To explain, research in 2007 showed that through incineration, 1 tonne of burnt paper could generate 9 gigajoules of energy, which is equivalent to the energy it would take to power 900 loads of laundry (1GJ = 100 loads).
However, it’s worth keeping in mind when looking at this figure that to produce 1 tonne of paper it requires 2 tonnes of wood.
Conversely, if the wood were directly used to generate heat, that would equal about 15GJ of energy per tonne.
We might suppose from these findings, then, that it would be better not to cut down the wood in the first place (i.e., to make the paper), instead recycling the paper for reuse.
By recycling paper, we can avoid contributing to the damaging manufacturing outputs that making new paper would incur.
For instance, a 2010 paper highlighted that the recycling process uses less energy and resources than manufacturing paper from scratch.
But there are a few things to keep in mind with this, too – namely, the 2007 research notes that as much as 40% of papers cannot be used due to degradation of the paper’s fibers over time (something which the other research also acknowledges).
At most, paper can be recycled 5 times before it is no longer usable, and we also have to consider that the process of regenerating the paper is not without limits.
Particularly with coated or treated paper, it is very difficult to remove the ink, and the process of un-inking requires energy, emitting an estimated 90 kg of CO2 per tonne of paper.
Due to these factors, the overall conclusion from the researchers is that based on how much energy is needed to recycle paper, it would be more environmentally favorable to burn the paper as this would mean no energy is wasted on the recycling process and no paper ends up in landfills.
But it’s important to emphasize that the burning of paper they are talking about here is at a commercial level, not simply burning paper in the backyard, as you wouldn’t get any of the benefits of energy capture through this method.
2. Does Burning Paper Contribute to Climate Change?
Yes, burning paper does contribute to climate change, but as a disposal method, it may not be our worst option.
Paper is a biomass material, meaning that it comes from renewable, organic sources – in this case, wood.
The problem with burning biomass materials is that, according to research, they are one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, creating pollutants such as black carbon, CO2, and methane.
As such, they are a significant factor in global warming, playing a role in climate change by raising the number of parts per million (ppm) of carbon in the atmosphere by 0.004% (40 ppm).
However, when we compare this to the air pollution of landfills, the impact might be far worse.
Firstly, we need to understand that paper is actually one of the largest solid waste components in the US as, according to the EPA, it makes up 23% of the total waste generated in a year.
Of this waste, while a large proportion is recycled, 25% goes to landfills.
In analysis, overall environmental emissions – that is, accounting for global warming, ozone depletion, toxicity, and a number of other factors – from landfill sites were found to be significantly higher than that of burning.
One of the reasons for this is the amount of methane produced by landfills.
Methane is produced as waste paper, and other items are decomposed by bacteria.
Unfortunately, methane has 21 times more global warming potential than CO2 (the main byproduct of burning biomass), which inevitably means that the effect of landfills on overall global warming is more severe than that of burning.
In other words, while burning paper is not an ideal option in that composting or recycling may be less damaging, given that in the US, we still landfill four times more paper than we burn, burning paper might be the lesser of two evils – especially when you factor in energy recovery.
3. Does Burning Paper Cause Pollution?
Yes, burning paper does cause pollution.
As we’ve discussed, burning paper might be overall better for the environment than other disposal options – namely, landfilling – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t play a huge role in pollution.
Some of the factors we mentioned, particularly those involved in the burning of biomass (which paper, of course, is), have widespread effects on the air and atmosphere.
For instance, in addition to releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, burning biomasses such as paper has also been shown to release:
PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons)
They are formed as a result of incomplete combustion of organic materials.
Once in the air, they can travel long distances and eventually settle on the ground or in water bodies, leading to contamination of sediment, soil, vegetation, and water (according to research).
PAHs can also bioaccumulate in the food chain, which means that animals that consume contaminated plants or other animals can pass on PAHs in their tissues.
Ultimately, this can lead to a greater exposure risk for humans who consume these contaminated foods.
In studies, these hydrocarbons are often exclusively formed by burning biomass (and sometimes exhaust emissions).
The main concern with alkynes is their potential to contribute to photochemical smog.
They can form ground-level ozone, which is a harmful air pollutant that can cause respiratory problems and other health issues, particularly for people with asthma or other lung conditions.
Organohalides are a class of organic compounds that are attached to halogen atoms such as chlorine, bromine, or fluorine, also known as halogenated compounds.
As a result of this structure, they can be prone to volatilization, where the compounds diffuse into the atmosphere, destroying ozone in the stratosphere (the layer of ozone which protects the earth from UV radiation).
They can also be toxic to both human health and the environment.
For example, they can cause a phenomenon known as biomagnification, which is where toxic chemicals in water and food are passed from species to species down the food chain, increasing in concentration as it travels up the chain.
4. Is Burning Paper Toxic?
The burning of any biomass, including paper, is intrinsically toxic.
This is because, as the New York Health Department highlights, all smoke contains carbon monoxide and particulate matter.
It has been described by health experts to cause respiratory illness, exacerbating asthma, and contributing to neurological diseases and birth defects.
On burning paper specifically, we see research warns that there is also a high risk of exposure to SO2 (sulfur dioxide), NOx (nitrous oxides), and VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
These can be highly dangerous substances — for instance:
- SO2, the EPA explains, may induce difficulties in breathing.
- NOx contributes to smog, ozone depletion, and acid rain, but it can also directly affect human health, increasing the risk of respiratory infections.
- Lastly, with VOCs, we see a range of health hazards, such as headaches, irritation to the eyes, throat, and nose, as well as potentially carcinogenic (cancer-causing) effects.
5. Is Burning Paper Illegal?
Each state has its own provisions as to whether burning paper is illegal.
Though there is no overarching law against the practice, most states do have laws that prevent any outdoor municipal waste burning, particularly in regard to population density.
Population density refers to the number of people per square mile in a given zip code area.
Where areas are highly population dense, burning of any kind of waste may be prohibited due to issues of outdoor air quality.
For instance, in the state of California, it is illegal to burn any waste or manufactured material, including paper, if you live in an area with a population density greater than 3 (according to the California Code of Regulations, section 93113).
However, you should always check directly with your local state regulations to see which laws apply.
6. How to Dispose of Paper in an Eco-Friendly Way
There are several alternatives to burning that you can consider, like recycling or finding ways to reuse your paper, such as for cleaning or crafts.
But perhaps one of the most effective disposal methods, according to research, is through anaerobic digestion.
Anaerobic digestion (AD) is a natural process that breaks down organic waste in the absence of oxygen, producing biogas and nutrient-rich fertilizer as byproducts.
It can be an effective method for managing organic waste and producing renewable energy in small-scale settings using a home biodigester unit.
Some people have made these units from scratch, whilst others buy them as a means to process waste in a cleaner way than composting or burning.
However, if AD isn’t an option for you, ordinary composting does a similar job.
Instead of producing biogas, you can use composting to generate fertile soil.
Unlike AD, composting works using aerobic (or oxygen-requiring) digestion.
This is when microorganisms break down waste materials, such as paper, into high-quality compost.
While comparison between the two methods has shown that AD is more environmentally beneficial than composting, it is still a good way to dispose of paper, as the EPA highlights that composting can reduce the need for fertilizers, help with carbon sequestration and reduce soil erosion.