How we know so much about magazines

"Seven magazines a month times 12 months equals 84 magazines, times 115 million families, times... okay, so EVERY YEAR people in this country throw away two and a half million TONS of magazines."

Check out these Web sites. (That's how we learned all of this!):

"That many magazines would fill 7 giant football stadiums. Each year!"

This is a fun calculation. We'll show you exactly how we figured this out:

  • First you need to know how many magazines get thrown away each year: 2.5 million tons (as we learned from the Environmental Protection Agency). One ton weighs 2,000 pounds, so 2.5 million tons weighs 5,000,000,000 (5 billion) pounds!
  • Next, you need to know how much space 5 billion pounds of paper takes up. In the U.S., we measure space in units like cubic yards. A cubic yard is 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet. Recycling companies tell us that one cubic yard of paper weighs 325 pounds.
  • So, how many cubic yards do you need to hold 5 billion pounds of paper? To find out, you need to divide the total number of pounds (5 billion) by 325 (the weight of one cubic yard): 5,000,000,000 / 325 = 15,384,615 cubic yards (a little over 15 million)!

That's a lot! Try to imagine 15 million piles of paper, each pile three-feet high, stacked up somewhere? Here's a sense of how much space that is:

  • The Metrodome is a huge football stadium in Minnesota. Inside that giant stadium, there are 2,222,222 cubic yards of space. So how many stadiums would 15 million cubic yards of paper fill? To find out, divide the total number of cubic yards of paper by the size of the Metrodome.
  • 15,384,615 / 2,222,222 = 6.9 football stadiums!

The total number of magazines thrown away every year in the U.S. would fill 6.9, or almost 7, football stadiums! If you add in catalogs and junk mail, it would probably fill many more.

Check out these Web sites. (That's how we learned all of this!):

"Now, some of these magazines get recycled — but MOST end up in landfills..."

Different groups disagree about how much paper gets recycled in the U.S. According to the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), paper recycling in the U.S. has been increasing ever year, as more people recycle in homes, offices, and schools. The AF&PA found that in 2009, 63.4% of paper was recycled in the U.S. However, some other groups think AF&PA's numbers are too high. These groups believe the recycling rates are much lower, somewhere between 20% and 40%. These numbers are for all paper types, including magazines.

What happens to recycled paper? In the U.S., much of the recycled paper gets shipped to China, where it is recycled into cardboard packaging for the products that China sends back and sells in the U.S. Waste paper is the number one (largest) export from the United States. In 2007, just one company alone shipped 579 shipping containers full of waste paper (that's the size of a regular semi-truck you see on the road, or 40' x 8' x 8.5') to China every day.

Once paper reaches a recycling facility, it is remade into a lower quality of paper, like printing paper, newsprint, tissue paper, or boxboard. The recycling process wears out the fibers in paper, so paper can only be recycled a limited number of times (generally a maximum of 7 times).

Check out these Web sites. (That's how we learned all of this!):

"...where they rot and produce methane gas, which is another way of saying 'cow pftttt.'"

What happens to magazines and other papers that get thrown away? That depends on the type of facility to which they are sent.

At a composting facility, paper is ripped into smaller pieces, added to other organic trash, and broken down using temperature, movement, and timing. Paper is organic (natural) material, so in a compositing facility, it can decompose in 2-5 months, depending on the type of paper and the conditions of the facility.

When paper starts to break down in a landfill it creates methane. Methane really is the gas that makes up cow farts (and people farts!), and although it occurs naturally, too much of it in the atmosphere can prevent sunlight from escaping the earth's atmosphere and therefore contribute to global warming. Paper in landfills also contributes to the creation of leachate, a toxic liquid which occurs when rain water filters through the materials in the landfill and picks up traces of theirs poisonous chemicals. This includes the inks used in printing on paper, especially color inks from magazines. Leachate is harmful if it drains into the groundwater and people's water supply.

Check out these Web sites. (That's how we learned all of this!):