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The Paperless Project
Article #246, February 2017
By Bill Cook

There’s an industry alliance that promotes a paperless society.  Their comments about paper use provide an opportunity of how to critically evaluate claims, perform fact-checking, and discover how misdirection can lead to faulty conclusions. 

     Humans consume vast, and rapidly increasing, quantities of raw materials.  However, paper and wood products are the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly.        
     The alliance that supports the “Paperless Project” is largely a list of digitally-based companies, possibly with self-interest as the primary goal, rather than environmental sustainability.  By framing issues in particular ways, the claims might make some sense, until a larger context is considered and other questions are forwarded. 
     Let’s take a look at some of the claims. 
1.  Reduce costs of paper-related actions including copying, printing, and storing.
     This, at first, might sound like a reasonable idea.  However, what’s not considered are the costs of providing these services by other means, presumably digital means.  A significant and increasing amount of minerals, some of which are rare earth minerals, go into the production of electronic and computing hardware.  These are non-renewable, finite natural resources that are largely imported into the USA.  This essentially exports the environmental impacts of extracting these raw materials to countries with lesser environmental concerns.  Also, the increasing consumption of electricity is an issue, which at this time comes largely from burning coal.  Digital and electronic technologies come with an environmental price-tag, just like other technologies and products.  Even email can use more carbon and energy than paper mail, depending upon a range of variables. 
2.  The paper industry is the third largest contributor to global warming.
     The third largest out of what sort of list?  By what measures?  In the United States, the majority of paper industry energy consumption comes from renewable sources, although that has shifted somewhat with current low prices for natural gas.  The use of trees provides a market for better forest management which, on a sustainably managed landscape level, sequesters more carbon than unmanaged forests.  Managed forests, driven by forest industries, actually serve to mitigate “global warming”. 
3.  To make one ton of paper towels, 17 trees and 20,000 gallons of water are polluted.
     Assuming these conversions are correct, and they appear reasonable, those harvested trees were likely removed from the forest in a sustainable manner, contributing to healthy forests and more environmental services, such as enhanced wildlife habitat and clean water.  As for the water pollution . . . bosh.  Water treatment from US paper mills is top of the line and highly regulated. 
4.  In the U.S., we currently use more than 13 billion pounds of paper towels each year and that number is growing steadily.  This equals more than 3,000 tons of paper towel waste in the U.S. alone. 
      Big numbers without a context can be misleading.  Given a U.S. population of 320 million, that’s a paper towel use of about 40 pounds per person per year.  Given the consumption of so many other products, paper towels are a mere blip on the radar.  And remember, paper towels are made from a renewable natural resource from an industry that, in many ways, leads the “green” movement and has done so for decades. 
5.  Globally, discarded paper towels result in 254 million tons of trash each year.
     Again, a big number taken by itself, but considering the total amount of trash generated each year, paper towels is a tiny percentage.  A 2012 World Bank report cited 2.6 trillion tons of trash generated per year, worldwide.  Paper towels, then, account for one hundredth of one percent. 
6.  As many as 51,000 trees per day are required to replace the number of paper towels that are discarded every day.
     It’s hard to say if that number is correct because trees come in many different sizes, and the geographical scope of the number is not defined.  US?  World?  However, by comparison, Michigan alone, has about 14 billion trees over five inches in diameter.  Michigan adds to its annual forest inventory more than twice the volume of wood that is harvested each year (USDA forest inventory data), or the equivalent of 274 million “average” trees.  Nationwide, there is also an annual increase in wood volume, which has trended for decades.  In Michigan, over 123 million “average” trees die from natural causes each year.  Nationally, 51,000 trees per day (18.5 million trees per year) is a small quantity.  
7.  If every household in the U.S. used just one less 70-sheet roll of paper towels, that would save 544,000 trees each year.
     First, trees cannot be saved.  They all die.  And, 544,000 trees is a tiny fraction of both our standing volume and our annual inventory increase.  We can choose to use trees in a sustainable manner (or unsustainable, for that matter) for the benefit of society or we can let them die in the forest, sometimes with significant negative impacts.  Wood is a very environmentally-friendly raw material, especially in terms of carbon, water, and energy use.  All other raw materials have a much higher environmental cost.  The paper industry helps drive markets that result in more forest management options, which translates into healthier and more productive forests.  One could argue that we should be using more paper, not less, especially if that paper displaces other products. 
8.  If every household in the U.S. used three less rolls per year, it would save 120,000 tons of waste and $4.1 million in landfill dumping fees.
     Admittedly, waste disposal is an important issue, and paper products are a significant part of the waste stream (about a quarter), although about 50 percent of paper products are recycled.  Yet, landfills are one way to sequester carbon (maybe not the best way).  However, 120,000 tons of waste is tiny portion of the U.S. annual waste stream.  According to the EPA, the U.S. produces about 258 million tons of waste.  As for $4.1 million in dumping fees, that’s a very tiny amount of money, unless it’s in your personal bank account!  By comparison, Americans spend about $1.97 billion - per day - eating at restaurants. 
     The questions of raw material extraction, production of goods, consumerism, sustainability, life cycle analyses, and related topics are complex.  “Simplified” factoids ought to engage critical-thinking skills.  For an excellent read about these issues in a balanced and more comprehensive manner, try Jim Bowyer’s “The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise”. 
     Most would argue that environmental, social, and economic consciousness is a good thing.  Americans consume far more materials per capita than anywhere else in the world.  However, attacking an industry as renewable and “green” as the paper industry points too many concerned citizens away from far more important issues, and suggests a hidden bias.

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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Forest Biomass Innovation Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at or 906-786-1575.

Prepared by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005 J Road, Escanaba, MI  49829
906-786-1575 (voice),  906-786-9370 (fax),  e-mail:

Use / reprinting of these articles is encouraged. Please notify Bill Cook.
By-line should read "Bill Cook, MSU Extension" Please use the article trailer whenever possible.

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