Mea Culpa 

An Earth Day look at the environmental costs of producing the Missoula Independent

Forgive us, enviros, for we consume.

As if that cat weren’t out of the bag long ago. I wish I had an acre of old growth forest for every time some spokesperson for a timber company or paper mill—irate that the Independent ran an article critical of their industry—told us that our tree-hugging sympathies might be better served by stopping our presses and closing up shop, as if we in the newspaper business go about our work day blithely unaware that newsprint comes from trees.

But the undeniable truth is that putting out a weekly newspaper consumes resources, and what better time to do our ecological stock-taking than on Earth Day? The point is not to make excuses or preempt our critics’ cries of hypocrisy, but to highlight the simple fact that all human endeavors have their ecological costs, which can be reduced only if you tally them up.

Even a crude environmental audit is like being asked to measure the coastline between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The simplest method is to draw a straight line on a map and measure the distance. But for a truly precise measurement, you’d need to measure the distance around every log, pebble and grain of sand.

An Indy work day begins with the morning commute. Of the 18 employees or interns who work on premises—at least a half-dozen others work from home and submit their work electronically—half of us walk, bicycle or carpool. The rest drive every day, either because we live too far away, are not on a bus route or need a vehicle for work. Only two employees—of which I am one—drive more than four miles each way.

The nine employees who drive on-the-clock log an average of 50 miles each week for a total of 23,400 miles annually, consuming 936 gallons of gasoline. Added to that tally are the miles logged by Independent carriers, who drive approximately 480 miles each week on ten different routes. In total, our staff drives about 48,360 miles each year, consuming 1,934 gallons of gasoline.

Also included in the Independent mileage is the diesel truck that transports our papers 115 miles from our printer in Kalispell to Missoula each week. Although diesel engines tend to be more efficient than gas-powered ones, they also put out a wider variety of airborne particulates, contributing to smog and respiratory illnesses.

Following the morning commute comes the morning java. By and large, the Indy is a caffeinated work force, with only two employees not tossing back at least one cup daily. On average, the staff gulps about 28 cups of coffee each day, or about 476 gallons annually. It’s made from grinding about 252 pounds of beans, requiring Colombian farmers to maintain about 168 coffee trees that consume about 154 pounds of fertilizer and several gallons of pesticides annually.

Once at work, the staff dwells in a climate controlled environment. For the 13 months between March 2000 and March 2001, the Independent offices averaged 2,913 kilowatt hours per month (kWh), skewed upward by seasonal spikes in summer energy consumption. Not including those peak months, our monthly consumption averaged just under 2,500 kWh.

According to the National Environmental Trust (NET), electric utilities in the United States released more than 1 billion pounds of toxic pollution in 1998, more than any other industry except metals mining. Coal-fired plants, which comprise 48 percent of Montana’s electricity production, released 9 million pounds of toxic metals and metal compounds into the air in 1998, and more than three-quarters of a billion pounds of dangerous acid gases. Montana’s electric utilities were second only behind paper and allied products for total emissions, releasing 950,655 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, and 7.7 million in total releases. Of the approximately 1,160 megawatts of generation sold to Pennsylvania Power and Light, wind generation makes up less than 0.5 percent of energy generation.

Over that same 13-month period, the Independent consumed on average 18.7 dekatherms of natural gas for heating our offices, with the highest consumption in December and January. According to Montana Power Company, about 30 percent of the natural gas sold here is produced within the state. The rest comes from Canada, Wyoming and other sources. While the Bush administration is calling for expanding natural gas exploration into pristine wilderness areas, NET reports that 80 to 90 percent of all U.S. oil and natural gas reserves are already open to drilling. Even with current supplies at a 30-year low, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that our current reserves will last at least 34 years.

Next, it’s on to the morning e-mail. My desktop computer required about 700 chemicals to manufacture, at least half of which are toxic. Next, I print a few hard copies of my e-mail and receive regular faxes throughout the day. Time and space restrictions prevent a more in-depth exploration of the chemical content of copier toner and laser printers. Suffice it to say that it takes 20 times more energy to manufacture a piece of virgin paper than to copy an image onto one. I’m also told that ink-jet printers use less energy than laser printers.

The staff makes a concerted effort to recycle office paper, printing on both sides before recycling it. Still, we go through about 20 reams of paper each month, and haven’t yet switched to a recycled or totally chlorine-free source. This is unfortunate, since the bleaching process is one of the world’s largest water polluters, involving hundred of chlorinated compounds including dioxins, among the most potent toxins known.

Contributing to the Independent waste stream are the various solvents and other compounds involved in manufacturing and developing the five to 10 rolls of films our photographers shoot each week. The Indy no longer processes film on-site, but the photo lab we do business with uses a developing practice that captures silver particles before they wash into the sewer system. They also recycle the plastic film canisters.

Each week, the Independent prints between 20,000 and 22,000 copies of each issue, consuming 5,800 pounds of newsprint, 31 gallons of soy-based black ink and 3 to 5 gallons of colored ink, one third of which contains petroleum products. The newsprint is trucked (using more diesel fuel) to our printer in Kalispell from one of two companies: North Pacific Paper in Longview, Wash., and Inland Empire Paper in Spokane. The newsprint itself is made from 40 to 50 percent post-consumer recycled content.

All copies of the Independent recovered from our distribution boxes are recycled, a process that saves 60 to 70 percent of the energy and 55 percent of the water that goes into making virgin paper. (Water consumption could not be pinpointed, but it’s probably considerable.)

Canada is the world’s largest supplier of newsprint, with British Columbia producing 5 percent of the world’s total. The trees cut for the Spokane paper mill likely come from 150-year-old Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir trees from central British Columbia, though no one at the mill could confirm their source. British Columbian logging practices are widely known to be more destructive than their American counterparts, with little or no protections for endangered species, water or air quality. Likewise, native peoples in Canada face considerable obstacles to protecting their land from commercial exploitation.

This is hardly the end but only the beginning of our impact. As I scan the office, I spot all the delinquencies in my search: the mercury in the fluorescent bulbs, the heavy metals used to manufacture the batteries and cassettes I use in my tape recorder, the chemicals involved in manufacturing envelopes, glues, pens, and plastic tape; the aluminum in my staples, not to mention the fuel and water consumed to make it all.

My head swims with the sheer magnitude of this task. Clearly, it’s far easier to accept that we all live downstream than to admit that we all leave our mess upstream.

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