Worth the paper?

An Earth Day appraisal of our eco-footprint



“It’s not easy being green,” one of the world’s better-known frogs once said. And though the statement was meant to bemoan a disadvantageous skin tone, Kermit’s sentiment could have easily been directed toward the Independent or any of the hundreds of other local businesses and individuals that go about their work and lives with an eye toward minimizing their impacts on the planet’s resources, consuming them all the while.

An alternative weekly newspaper, whose pages are routinely dedicated to environmental issues of all stripes, may find itself particularly conflicted in this tug-of-war. After all, last year our efforts resulted in the printing of more than 75.4 million pages, or 1.2 million issues, amounting to 188 tons of paper, most of which made its way to you, dear readers. Now don’t get us wrong: We’re no self-hating news junkies, and we believe that just about every page was worth printing. But regardless, Earth Day seems like a good time to take stock of the Indy’s environmental impacts, if only to underscore the simple equation that human enterprise equals ecological impact, and to note that reminding ourselves of those impacts from time to time can’t hurt.

The paper you’re holding now is our final product. But to tally that paper’s full impact, without expending an inordinate amount of energy (and we’re trying to minimize that, right?), we have to start with the morning commute. Most of the 21 employees who work at Independent headquarters in Missoula—two more toil away in the Kalispell satellite office—drive fewer than five miles to work, though a handful carpool or bike religiously and a few face a lengthier commute.

The seven staffers who drive on-the-clock daily to meet with advertisers and the like each log about 80 miles a week for a total of nearly 28,000 miles in 2005, burning up about 1,400 gallons of gasoline along the way. The news staff, meanwhile, cruised 4,800 miles in search of stories. Added to that are the miles traveled by Independent carriers, who deliver the paper each week to 650 drops on 10 routes ranging from Hamilton to Whitefish and from Seeley Lake to Alberton, chalking up about 420 miles each week in the process. Also to be accounted for are the 115 miles our newspapers travel from our printer in Kalispell to Missoula each week. The annual total of at-work miles Indy agents travel, then, comes in at more than 60,000 miles, requiring about 3,000 gallons of gasoline.

But gas is hardly the only fuel on which the Independent runs. After the morning commute comes the morning coffee, a drink nearly every employee relies on to the tune of at least one cup a day (at least one among us, oddly among the mellowest, confesses to guzzling six to eight cups daily). That average of 33 cups a day translates, with the help of a mathematically inclined barista who works at one of the stronger coffee-making joints in town, to about 750 gallons of coffee a year, made from about 1,000 pounds of coffee beans. The beans, of course, are shipped from southern climes after being grown on farms, though we won’t even speculate about the distances beans travel or the chemicals that help them grow.

Once we’re in the office and ready to work, we rely on a third source of energy to power us through our day. Our 24 humming computers, our energy-efficient light bulbs, and the air conditioning we crank up in the summertime are the leading contributors to the 3,300 or so kilowatt hours per month of electricity we use, while we heat the office in winter with about 11 dekatherms of natural gas on a monthly basis, allowing for seasonal fluctuations. The U.S. electric utility plants that feed us collectively released 1.05 billion pounds of toxic pollution in 2004, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, or nearly 25 percent of the toxins that make their way into our air, water and land annually.

Next, we turn to our computers to sort our volumes of e-mail, then we head downstairs to pick up our faxes. Despite the developing charms of the digital world, we still love hard copies, which are harder to misplace and forget about, and we print out e-mails and important notices, resulting in a handful of expired toner cartridges annually, per printer.

Those printouts add up: In 2005, the Indy staff went through 500 reams of office paper, but at least it’s 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, and it’s whitened by hydrogen peroxide, not chlorine bleach, which we’re told is far less toxic and introduces fewer dioxins into the environment.

We also recycle our paper, and Missoula Valley Recycling tells us they collect 50 to 100 pounds of it from our office every two weeks, in addition to the bins of newsprint, aluminum cans, plastic bottles and cardboard they also pick up.

Office materials have to figure in somewhere, too, since we went through some 144 reporter notebooks, 1,400 manila folders, 492 pens, 164 highlighters, 136 batteries and 140 Post-it pads in 2005. Those aren’t the only supplies we need, either: We used 150 rolls of recycled (not by us) toilet paper and 90 rolls of paper towels.

Finally, each week’s paper entails printing an average of nearly 22,000 issues, which requires about 8,000 pounds of recycled newsprint, 20 pounds of soy-based black ink, 15 pounds of soy-based color ink and more than 30 aluminum printing plates that will be recycled.

And there you sit, holding the end result. Maybe you’ll line the cat’s litter box with it tonight, or use it to fire up the barbecue. We’ll start the cycle anew next week. And we’ll keep trying to make the paper worth it.


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