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How Big Is DISCOVER's Carbon Footprint?

That one little magazine is responsible for 2.1 pounds of carbon dioxide.

By Jennifer Barone, Amber Fields, Karen Rowan, and Jessica Marshall
Apr 21, 2008 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:50 AM
Image courtesy of Salem Krieger/Veer | NULL


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Two and one-tenth pounds of carbon dioxide. That is our best estimate of what is emitted into the atmosphere when we harvest trees, turn the freshly milled paper into your individual copy of DISCOVER, get it into your hands, and see it to its final resting place. For comparison, this is the same amount of CO2 produced by twelve 100-watt lightbulbs glowing for an hour or a car engine burning 14 ounces of gasoline.

As a publication that keeps a close eye on the state of the planet, DISCOVER decided it was time to look in the mirror and take stock of our own contribution to the greenhouse-gas problem. That means accounting for greenhouse-gas emissions due to all the processes from harvesting, milling, and printing to shipping, recycling, and stowing in landfills: looking at every step of the magazine’s life cycle.

To define the scope of our analysis and set the standards for our calculations, we turned to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, a widely used emissions accounting tool for businesses and governments. (It was created by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a coalition that gathers information on how to make businesses greener.) We then got cracking on the numbers, with an immediate objective in mind: to buy carbon dioxide offsets to make this issue carbon neutral.

From the Office Before an issue of DISCOVER can exist as a physical object, it needs to be conceptualized, reported, written, edited, fact-checked, copyedited, designed, and supplemented with advertisements. That requires 35 people to make their way to our New York offices every workday. We surveyed all our staff (see “Personal Mark,” below, for a breakdown of two staff members’ out-of-office footprints) for commuting mileage, mode of transportation, business travel, and messenger trips needed to do their jobs. From there we used government emissions estimates for subways, buses, cars, and air travel to determine that DISCOVER’s staff puts out 5.4 tons of carbon dioxide getting around each month.

Then there’s the office itself. Heat and air-conditioning keep it habitable throughout the year. Its energy-using devices—computers, fluorescent lights, printers, and (of course) the fridge and coffeemaker—allow us to do our work. We looked up a month’s electricity and natural gas usage for the entire building where we lease our offices and estimated our respective portions to be 9,091 kilowatt-hours (the average single-family home uses 1,000 kilowatt-hours per month) and 589 therms, the equivalent of burning about 58,900 cubic feet of natural gas. Using emission rates from the EPA for electricity generation in our region and natural gas emission figures from the Department of Energy, we determined that our office’s energy use adds another 8.7 tons of CO2 to the total.

To the Northern Forests Once the magazine is ready for printing, we notify our paper supplier, who has paper shipped from a mill in Quebec to our printing plant in Jonesboro, Arkansas. It is a behemoth shipment: Printing a million or so copies of DISCOVER every month takes over 348,000 pounds of paper, according to Bill Branch of Quebecor World, which handles our printing and distribution. The shipment makes the 1,450-mile journey by truck in some months and by train in others. We split the difference, assuming that it travels half the time by road and half by rail. Using greenhouse-gas figures for truck and rail from the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (and assuming tractor trailers running at six miles per gallon of gasoline), we found that moving this monthly 174-ton load kicks out 13.7 tons of CO2 .

Making paper is an emission-intensive process on its own. Each magazine begins as a tree in the forests of Quebec (fir, spruce, or pine), which is harvested and transported to a sawmill. Chips and sawdust from here make their way by boat to a paper mill in Quebec, where the wood fibers are separated, creating pulp, and bleached white. Water is mixed with the pulp to form a slurry, which is then spread into a thin sheet, pressed to squeeze out the liquid, and dried.

To calculate the impact of these processes, we consulted the results of the Paper Task Force, a joint project of the nonprofit group Environmental Defense, Duke University, and several large corporations. Part of their work details the CO2 emissions per ton of paper for a variety of different products, including the lightweight coated stock used for magazines. The quantity of that paper DISCOVER uses every month releases 614 tons of carbon dioxide—making it the single largest source of emissions in the production chain. Even so, this takes into account only the manufacturing process. Harvesting and transporting the trees to the mill bumps up the CO2 count another 22 tons. Add the magazine inserts (those little cards that offer subscriptions)—which amount to 8 tons of 50-percent-recycled content—and we gain another 20 tons.

From the Mill to the Presses At the printing plant, the footprint continues to grow. By looking at the plant’s total annual utility use and the fraction of yearly operations needed to print a single issue of DISCOVER, David Hakenewerth, a manager at Quebecor’s Jonesboro facility, determined that producing one month’s edition of the magazine consumes 63,364 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 1,704 therms of natural gas. According to government carbon dioxide emission rates for the region’s electricity and fuel, these processes account for another 52 tons of CO2 . But this does not include the ink, a product whose footprint is not nearly as well studied as paper. Evaluations of two other printed products came up with the same emissions estimate. Ink accounted for about 1 percent of the total greenhouse-gas emissions for both products. Assuming the same holds true for DISCOVER, ink would bring an additional 9.6 tons of CO2 to the emissions calculation.

Rolls of paper get inked at Quebecor, DISCOVER's printing press in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Photography by Jeffrey Jacobs | NULL

On the Road with DISCOVER From the printing plant, the magazines split along two paths. If you are a subscriber, your issue joins about 600,000 others on a shipment from Jonesboro to Quebecor’s distribution facility outside Chicago. Based on the weight of those magazines (about 234,000 pounds) and the carrying capacity of a large tractor trailer (44,000 pounds), that works out to about five full freight trucks making the 540-mile journey, emitting 4.7 tons of CO2 along the way.

Near Chicago, the subscriber copies are further divided: About a quarter stay in Illinois, while the rest are sent out to six other distribution centers around the country. Using our circulation data on the number of subscribers in each state and Canadian province, along with Quebecor’s map of the states that each center serves, we figured out how many magazines go to each distribution center. After converting that load into a number of trucks and mapping how far they have to travel from Chicago, again assuming the least energy-efficient trucks on the most efficient path, we found that this trip accounts for another 7.3 tons of greenhouse gases. By a similar process, we calculated another 3.3 tons of CO2 in the next leg of the subscriber-issue journey, which takes them from the major distribution centers to postal facilities around the country.

From there, the magazines get to local post offices and reader mailboxes via the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). The USPS has already calculated its own footprint, so we estimated our portion of the total monthly weight handled by the USPS at about 1/9,200 of their monthly 2.2 billion pounds. We then took that fraction of vehicle emissions as our own, for another 16 tons of CO2 .

If you got your copy at a newsstand, it took a different path. From the printing plant in Arkansas, over 300,000 copies bound for stores were trucked to 213 wholesalers around the country and in Canada. Our newsstand consultant, T. J. Montilli, was able to provide the location of every wholesaler and the number of issues going to each, allowing us to calculate the trucking footprint to each state and Canadian province, for an additional 5.8 tons of CO2 .

In most cases, wholesalers supply every retailer within about a hundred-mile radius. Assuming that our 41,500 retailers are evenly sprinkled around wholesalers, we calculated the distance that the average magazine travels from wholesaler to retailer at about 70 miles. With each delivery, the trucks also pick up unsold issues at newsstands and return them to the wholesaler for disposal. This traffic puts another 2.3 tons of CO2 on our tab. Add 176 tons of CO2 for recycling and landfilling and the total comes to 962 tons of CO2 . This month we will purchase a carbon offset for $4,796 from Carbonfund.org, a nonprofit that will compensate for our footprint by planting trees and investing in renewable energy.

The AfterLife of a magazine The afterlife of the magazine is up to you. Your issue of DISCOVER will end up in an incinerator, landfill, or in a plant to become new paper. Although about two-thirds of communities offer recycling, the Magazine Publishers Association reports that only about 20 percent of used magazines are recycled.

The EPA calls landfilling “net carbon negative”—meaning it removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere—an accolade they also give to recycling, which they say does an even better job of this. But the Paper Task Force does not see the processes as carbon neutral. We used the task force’s numbers to calculate the carbon impact of recycling and throwing away magazines. Ninety percent of magazines that are not recycled end up in a landfill, where they decompose and release CO2 as well as methane, a greenhouse gas that is much more efficient at trapping heat. The rest are incinerated.

Each month’s issue of DISCOVER in this process, transportation included, releases the equivalent of 170 tons of CO2 , whereas recycled magazines—only a small portion of the total—produce about 6 tons. Beyond reducing greenhouse gases, recycling saves about 1,000 pounds of solid waste, some 10,000 gallons of water, and 17 million Btu of energy per ton of paper. Furthermore, two tons of trees per ton of paper remain standing due to recycling.

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