Paper in the Life of the Church

By Thomas Blum

Here in the Phoenix area, we just recently had a record run of thirty-one consecutive days with temperatures above 110°; many days over 115°. There can be little doubt that climate change is rearing its ugly head. One of the many culprits that may come as a surprise to many people is the production and recycling of paper in its various incarnations and uses. Paper is such a ubiquitous commodity and truly surrounds every aspect of our daily lives. What does that mean for the environment and climate change?

Let’s look at some basic statistics. It currently takes about 900 million trees annually to provide the raw materials needed for paper manufacturing. Paper accounts for 10% of all deforestation globally and 35% of all trees felled are used for paper and paper products. Trees absorb and store carbon dioxide and release oxygen, which is why forests are often referred to as the lungs of the planet. As forests are cleared, they release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. It is estimated that forest loss is the cause of about 10% of global warming.

Mitigation of these devastating effects on our planet seems more than worth the effort, so where do we start? How can we have an impact at the individual and parish levels? We’ll look at some suggestions that, even though they are seemingly small actions, can have cumulative and significant benefits.

Recycle, Reduce, Reuse

Let’s examine for a moment the familiar adage “recycle, reduce, reuse” that has become a mantra of the environmentalist community. Recycling may be the most familiar and most practiced of the three, and recycling can have a significant impact. The recycling of one ton of paper can save enough energy to power an average American home for six months and saves 7,000 gallons of water, as well as reduces greenhouse gasses by one metric ton. Also, it saves over three cubic yards of landfill space and saves an average of fifteen to seventeen trees.

It is important to remember, that though there are definite savings and benefits to recycling, there are also costs and drawbacks as well.  According to Southern California Shredding, it takes 32 million BTUs of energy to produce one ton of paper. While it only takes 22 million BTUs to recycle that same one ton of paper, definite savings, there is still a significant energy expenditure involved in recycling compared to, say, a reduction in overall paper usage. It should also be noted that, despite recycling efforts, a whopping 25% of landfill waste remains paper and paper products. Do these drawbacks indicate recycling is not worthwhile?  Not at all! There is definite value in having and adhering to a thorough recycling plan.

Other Steps to Take

Having a recycling program in place is great, but it’s just one of the three steps. Let’s take a look at the other two. According to Wolters Kluwer, the current annual amount of office paper waste could build a wall twelve feet high running from New York to California. If the United States cut office paper usage by just 10% it would prevent emissions of 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gasses, the equivalent of taking 280,000 cars off the road. Imagine having that kind of impact on the environment with such minimal effort! So, what kind of actions can be taken at the parish and individual levels? What are some real-world examples where paper usage can be reduced, reused, or even eliminated? Let’s begin at the parish level and suggest ways individual churches can have the greatest possible impact.

Reduce Printed Sunday Bulletins

Does your parish print and hand out bulletins each week to those in attendance? Are services printed out rather than using the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) located in the pews? Do paper cups and plates get used during coffee/fellowship hours before and after services? All of these examples are great places to start when it comes to the reduction or elimination of paper usage. Before the start of the Holy Eucharist, a Vestry or other representative member could make all the announcements listed in the bulletin. If someone wanted or needed a paper copy, a few could be available but there isn’t a need for everyone to be given a hardcopy unless specifically requested.

Likewise, it only takes a moment for the celebrant to announce what page in the BCP services start on and guide the congregation through using what’s available already in the pews rather than printing out service leaflets. Perhaps your parish could offer an introductory class on the BCP and its use. It can be confusing, especially for a newcomer to the Episcopal Church. If your parish uses paper plates and cups for fellowship hours, perhaps ceramic mugs and plates can be procured and utilized. There may be an initial investment and, yes, someone would need to do the dishes after coffee hour, but wouldn’t it be worth it to eliminate the reliance on paper products?

Reuse Paper Print-Outs

Reuse is also an option worth considering where paper usage is a necessity. At The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Mesa, for example, service leaflets are available for use by parishioners but they are placed back into baskets after the Eucharist is over and reused the following week. This specific example only works if the order of service does not change from week to week. If your parish changes or alternates between the various Eucharistic prayers it would be more advisable to utilize the BCP and guide parishioners by providing page numbers throughout the service.

For congregations and parishioners that still want other options and resources where paper is being reduced or eliminated, where do we turn? How can we, as a Church, be environmentally conscious while still providing multiple pathways to engage members and newcomers? One of the most impactful and obvious solutions involves leveraging technology to provide alternative avenues of communication and resources.

Using Technology to Reduce Paper Use

Most churches have developed and maintained a website which is a great starting point. A website can be a centralized depot of all types of information and resources, including general information about the church such as location and service times; but an online presence can be so much more than that. Weekly announcements can be easily posted and updated regularly keeping parishioners informed. Service bulletins can be included that congregants can access on their tablets or smartphones. Weekly lectionary readings can be included instead of printing out paper copies.

An online presence can also be expanded beyond a simple website by participation in any number of social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, just to name a few. Maintaining a social media presence can be an excellent way to keep parishioners informed and engaged. Direct email is also an important tool that can be utilized to send out newsletters and other important announcements. Some parishes, like St. John the Baptist in Glendale, also use audio-visual equipment to project portions of the service on large screens at the front of the church allowing people to follow along without the need for paper copies.

Having online and social media avenues for communication and engagement isn’t without its challenges, however, and it should be noted that not everyone is tech-savvy or familiar with how these outlets can best be utilized.

The Future of Paper in the Church

The presence and usage of technology present a huge opportunity for individual ministry. Helping other less tech-savvy parishioners get and stay connected can be a huge blessing for people. Perhaps someone could initiate an informal small group setting to help get people more comfortable with using their tablets, laptops, or smartphones to access church information. Volunteering to update and maintain the church website and social media, as well as maintaining email listings and publishing newsletters and other electronic communications, are all vital to the reduction and elimination of paper use at both the parish and individual levels.

Just like any ministry in the church’s life, it truly takes a village to make everything work well and to lead and encourage others to follow suit. If we all work together and give of our time, talent, and treasure, we can truly make a huge difference and become more responsible stewards of the environment. If you’d like to take additional action by helping to plant and replenish trees, visit the Arbor Day Foundation for more information. Also, keep an eye out as the Creation Care Council has some exciting plans to build on these concepts and to help celebrate Arbor Day this coming year.

3 comments on “Paper in the Life of the Church”

  1. Thank you for your notes. I will pass them on to make sure that Father Peter at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia knows about your suggestions.

  2. Great article. Good factual information that paints a picture of the impact and offers good ideas for ways to change. We are called to be good stewards to work in partnership with God in creation care.

  3. I love the audio-visual idea. Years ago I attended another church that listed hymns and readings on boards near the altar that could be seen from both sides and at the back. We used the hymn books in the pews and our own Bibles,

    (use audio-visual equipment to project portions of the service on large screens at the front of the church allowing people to follow along without the need for paper copies.)