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A Call to Go (Nearly) Paperless

It's not just TP that we're addicted to. Paper products make up the largest portion of our waste stream and cutting back has never been easier.
 
 
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Please consider the environment before printing this article.

On Election Day, millions of us went down to our corner newsstand to pick up a copy of the daily paper. The headlines spoke of history in the making, and we took home the printed pages as souvenirs commemorating the most exciting election of a generation. But for many, this was the first paper we've bought in years, and it may be the last.

Earlier this month the Pew Research center reported that more Americans are now getting their news from the internet than from newspapers -- not a terribly surprising announcement. About two-thirds of us have a home computer, and over 70 percent use computers at work. Online news is updated constantly, whereas the traditional daily news cycle is frozen for several hours each night during printing, dooming the print edition to be outdated by morning. Plus, most online news is free -- a quality that none of us can resist, particularly these days.

The advantages to giving up printed news are clear, but when it comes to kicking our addiction to other paper products most Americans aren't jumping on board. Paper permeates every aspect of our lives -- we use it at home, school and work, we wrap our food and gifts with it, read stories off it, and we put it to use when drying our tears and wiping our butts. We use and throw out more paper than any other material, and the pulpy stuff makes up a whopping thirty-two percent of all the tonnage entering our waste stream. Americans trash 83 million tons of paper per year, and we flush away an additional seven billion rolls of toilet paper on top of that. About half of the paper we throw out -- including newspaper, magazines, junk mail, packaging, office paper and cardboard -- gets recycled. The environmental benefits of recycling paper are huge, as producing a ton of recycled paper takes less than half as much water and energy as making paper from wood pulp.

Plus, recycling saves trees. It takes about 17 trees to produce a ton of paper, and often those trees are sourced from sensitive and essential ecosystems and carbon sinks like the Amazon Rainforest and Canada's Boreal Forest. When a tree is cut to make paper only about half of the wood is used for pulp, and recycling our existing paper supply is significantly more efficient and in some (and increasing) cases less expensive than producing new paper from trees.

Paper has an important place in our culture and hearts -- what would America be without dollar bills, postcards, cereal boxes, card games, trashy magazines and birthday parties colored with streamers and gift wrap? There's nothing more comforting than a paper trail -- paperless voting has been widely denounced and paper receipts and contracts serve an essential role in our economy and legal system. And although millions around the world have no use for paper in the bathroom, most Americans cringe at the thought of living without toilet paper and it's unlikely that our penchant for wiping will go away any time soon.

When it comes to these somewhat "essential" paper products that are simply not going away, the greenest option is recycling. There are currently no federal requirements governing how companies source paper materials, and federal leadership has been weak when it comes to setting limits on the use of virgin paper. To its credit, the Federal Government -- along with several states -- has adopted standards that require its offices to use paper made with a minimum percentage of post-consumer recycled content. Environmental organizations like NRDC and Greenpeace have launched campaigns urging large paper companies like Kimberly Clarke to increase their use of recycled content and put an end to sourcing wood pulp from virgin forests, but as of yet most companies source only a minimal percentage of their pulp from recycled paper.

The issue of making extra-soft toilet paper from virgin forests has gotten a surge of much-overdue attention recently, following a scathing article in the Guardian last month and Greenpeace's publication of a consumer toilet paper guide. Until the EPA sets regulations requiring companies to utilize recycled paper or businesses start taking the initiative on their own, it's up to consumers to forego extra-fluffy TP and vote for recycled paper products with their wallets. And while we're in the paper aisle, maybe we should forget recycling and consider just giving up other paper products that we can simply live without.

At work, it's not uncommon to get an email punctuated by this popular note, "Please consider the environment before printing this email." And the recommendation is generally easy to follow, considering that the term "paperless" has become synonymous with "efficient" in the modern workplace. Although over 70 percent of office paper is reclaimed for recycling, offices are in a prime position to save money and time by and employing technology software like GreenPrint and adopting intra-office paper use policies.

America's schools face a similar opportunity as businesses in terms of reducing their massive consumption of paper. The millennials attending 21st century schools have no trouble giving up paper -- most of them are on the computer whether they're seeking entertainment or doing school work, and they're faster at texting than writing by hand. But even if students are open to paperless education, schools won't be able to reduce paper use until teachers and administrators get on board. This kind of leadership has been demonstrated in Chicago, where the public school system promotes the reduction of paper use by offering awards to classrooms and offices that recycle more and use less, and the program has yielded positive results.

But, like most environmental action, the shift to a paperless life begins at home. Aside from toilet paper, there are few household paper products that Americans are really married to, but we still consume and throw away tons of the stuff -- literally. Our country goes through three thousand tons of paper towels each day and mountains of tissues when dish cloths and hankies present a cheap, accessible and reusable alternative. These days we use over twenty-five percent more of these kinds of paper than we did a mere twenty years ago -- most of our grandparents didn't use them, and we don't need them.

Unlike our grandparents, today's homes have the internet, which we can use for paying bills, monitoring bank accounts, and cancelling junk mail (which alone amounts to four million tons of paper a year). We read our news online, get our celebrity gossip there, and some of us are even buying and reading books using digital media. Unless you're too lazy to wash dishes and instead use paper cups and plates (and some of us, sadly, do), there's really no need to buy paper at all.

Paper is a low-hanging fruit compared to many of the environmental challenges we face. It makes up the largest portion of our waste stream, so a relatively small reduction in paper use would result in a significant drop in overall landfill waste. Recycled paper is doubly effective, not only reducing energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions, but also saving trees that take CO2 out of the atmosphere. Compared to solving the energy crisis and revamping our food system, the paper issue is a featherweight that we could easily tackle with some simple recycling and product sourcing legislation.

People have been hooked on paper for over a thousand years, and the thought of a completely paperless world is not only naïve, it's also kind of sad. Paper is here to stay, but ideally in smaller quantities. And there's certainly no reason to keep cutting down trees to make the stuff, especially when we're throwing away over forty million tons of recyclable paper each year and there are tree-free options like hemp which can be grown quickly and efficiently in the US. In our race to establish a more sustainable society, the paper hurdle is small -- why not just jump right over it?

 

 
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