Does burying paper sequester carbon?

Can you help the environment by burying your paper?
10 August 2020
Presented by Adam Murphy
Production by Adam Murphy.


A traditional Japanese origami crane folded with orange paper


Johnny asked us if burying paper counts towards carbon sequestration. To dig up an answer, Adam Murphy spoke to Shaun Fitzgerald, Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge, about how useful that really is...

In this episode

Throwing away a paper towel in a bin.

00:00 - QotW: Does burying paper sequester carbon?

Listener Johnny asked this question - so Adam sought out an answer...

QotW: Does burying paper sequester carbon?

Adam Murphy has been searching the files for an answer to this question from Johnny...

Johnny - Does burying paper in a landfill sequester carbon?

Adam - Makes sense in a way, trees are in the ground, trees make paper, if you put that paper back in the ground, you’re helping out? Right? Well, Shaun Fitzgerald, Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge might be able to stop us barking up the wrong tree.

Shaun - Carbon sequestration is the process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and locked away in various forms such as being buried underground, converted to minerals such as carbonates, used to raise the carbon content of soils, or stored as wood for future generations. It is very natural to post the question “Does burying paper in a landfill sequester carbon?" One might first think that given trees contain carbon, and trees were felled to make the paper, if we could keep it in landfill that might be a solution. However, there is more to it than that. We need to consider two things – the results of making paper in the first place, and then what happens if we put it in landfill.

Adam - Of course, as with so many things in science, the truth isn’t quite so simple.

Shaun - The tree loss caused by the manufacture of paper is staggering. About 35% of tress felled worldwide are used to feed the paper industry. We are not replacing these at the rate we are felling them, so our use of paper isn’t helping here on the carbon sequestration agenda. What about landfill once we have used the paper? Well, paper doesn’t stay in the same condition. Over time it will decompose and release methane and carbon dioxide. Both gases are a real problem. Methane is more potent as a greenhouse gas although it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as CO2, but nevertheless it lasts for years so is a real problem.

The simple answer is to use less paper.

Adam - Thank you Shaun for digging up an answer to that one for us. Next week. We’re looking out for an answer to this one, from Lionel.

Lionel - I installed a sensor that switches on a light when it detects a sound. However, when I clap my hands, the light appears to come on fractions of a second before I hear the sound. Does it take my brain longer to process the sound than the light?


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