Friday, March 7, 2008

A paper-thin environment


"Waste is worse than loss. The time is coming when every person who lays claim to ability will keep the question of waste before him constantly. The scope of thrift is limitless."

Thomas Edison

First, full disclosure. I, like you, am a paper consumer. Among other things I buy, keep and stack on shelves and in boxes are as many or more books, magazines, newspapers and catalogs made of paper as any other American. More, my writing appears in some of these paper products and (I hope) contributes to their raison d'être and use. When colds or allergies strike, I go through tissue paper with abandon, though I remember as a boy carrying a handkerchief and blowing my nose into it until even a young boy's sensitivities were offended and it was washed and reused. For reasons of convenience as much as sterility, that practice has been abandoned.

Like most Americans, I consume a certain share of paper cups, plates, envelopes, cardboard containers, calendars, notebooks, paper towels and toilet paper. Like most Americans, each week I receive in the mail in the form of catalogs, promotions, advertisements and the like far more bulk paper that I discard (recycle if possible) than mail that is actually part of my life. That paper and all the energy and labor and pollution and, most importantly, trees that contributed to its production are completely wasted. William Monson said, "Waste is not grandeur."

America is the most wasteful society in Earth's history, and we are all complicit in its consequent poverty of spirit and lack of care for the Earth's paper-thin environment.

The average American uses 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of paper a year. The average citizen of India uses 4 kilos. The United Nations estimates that 30 to 40 kilos will meet basic literacy and communication needs for each person on Earth.

Paper was first invented (by Ts'ai Lun in China nearly 2,000 years ago from rags, discarded fishing nets, hemp and grass—no trees) as a communication tool. The Gutenberg Bible, the first two drafts of the U.S. Constitution and Mark Twain's original works were all printed on hemp-based paper without a single fiber of a single tree. While there is about as much chance of America restoring its once-thriving hemp industry to make paper as there is of its current administration abiding by U.S and international law, to do so would benefit the social, democratic, cultural, psychological and biological environment of the world. The war on drugs, like the war in Iraq, has an abundance of "collateral damage," including some of the forests of the world.

About 40 percent of the municipal solid waste of the world is paper. More than 90 percent of paper comes from trees. A fifth of the world's timber harvest is for producing paper, and while the paper industry refers to trees as a "renewable resource," that is disingenuous at best. There are such things as "tree farms" where trees are grown somewhat the same way chickens and hogs are grown as products, not as living organisms, but like large-scale factory farms, they are destructive to the environment, not an integral part of it. A tree farm is not a forest.

Trees from both forest and farm supply about 55 percent of the paper of the world. Thirty-eight percent comes from recycled paper, and 7 percent is from non-tree sources. Three tons of trees are required to produce one ton of paper, and the pulp and paper industry, the fifth largest industrial energy consumer, uses more water to produce a ton of product than any other industry. About 12,000 square miles of forest are consumed each year by U.S. pulp mills.

Recycled paper production creates 74 percent less air pollution and 38 percent less water pollution than paper created from "virgin fiber." There are different levels and standards of recycled paper. That is, some recycled paper product is more recycled than others. In our world, which is the only world we and any of our descendants have or ever will have, the environment on which all life depends is as thin as a sheet of paper, and it is being torn apart by the excesses of man. One factoid illustrates a larger reality: The group Environmental Defense estimates that if the entire U.S. catalog industry switched its publications to just 10-percent recycled content paper, the savings in wood alone would be enough to stretch a 1.8-meter-high fence across the United States seven times. With a few enlightened exceptions they will not do so unless their customers (consumers) demand it.

That can only happen when enough people educate themselves about our paper-thin environment and act upon that education in such a manner as to rightfully and righteously lay claim to ability.

Do you?

If not, why not?

After all, according to Thomas Edison, waste is worse than loss.

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