Anti-paper movement a misguided environmental cause

By John Berthelsen

Recently there has been an increasing amount of publicity regarding the environmental impact of printing and the use of paper products. It has become increasingly popular to promote the idea that it is bad to be using paper and printed products. Campaigns are waged to “save a tree” by stopping the use of direct mail or printed catalogs. There was even a spot on a local television station recently about a Girl Scout troop that was helping people by calling to cancel their receipt of catalogs.

The printing and paper industries are major employers in Wisconsin, representing the 4th and 5th largest manufacturing industries in the state. In today’s economic climate do we really want to be taking actions that help to close more paper mills, or put more printers out of work? The paper industry employs over 40,000 in our state and leads the country in paper production. The printing industry employs over 45,000 people in nearly 1,000 companies across the state, and ranks as the 7th largest producer in the country with shipments of nearly $8 billion.

Bashing the use of paper is not as environmentally sound as many would have you think. Trees are a renewable resource that comes from farms. Due to reforestation, forests in the U.S. have actually grown in the past century. An estimated 4 million trees are planted each day. On the nation’s commercial forests, net annual growth exceeds harvests and losses to insects and disease by 47 percent each year. Saying that you are saving a tree by not using paper is like saying that you are saving a stalk of wheat by not eating cereal.

There are important issues in areas of the world where forests are being destroyed. But don’t blame the paper industry. In South America, rainforests are being replaced by croplands that are growing soybeans. In Southeast Asia, forests are being lost in order to plant palm trees to harvest their oil. Attack those issues, if you will, but they are not caused by the paper industry.

Paper is biodegradable and is not dangerous to dispose of. Unlike plastic water bottles, computers, PDA’s and most electronic devices, paper decomposes in a landfill. E-waste is the fastest growing component of the municipal waste stream worldwide. Plastic is not generally biodegradable. Of 30 billion plastic water bottles sold in the U.S. only 12 percent were recycled, leaving 25 billion bottles landfilled, littered or incinerated. Production of plastic bottles requires the use of 1.5 million barrels of oil per year. Why don’t we get behind some environmental (and economic) action on that?

Paper is recyclable and 37% of U.S. pulp is produced from recovered paper. While the use of recycled content varies widely among grades of paper, it continues to increase. In 2007, total paper recovery averaged nearly 360 pounds for every person in America. By 2012, the paper industry plans to recover 60% of the paper that Americans consume. Most recovered paper is recycled back into paper and paperboard products. In addition to paper itself, recovered paper can be used in a variety of other products such as egg cartons, fruit trays, wall insulation, roofing and animal bedding.

As citizens of the planet, we should all be doing our part to improve our environmental footprint. The paper, printing and publishing industries have embraced the green movement and have taken actions to proactively address these issues. But we want to make it clear that choosing to not print, or ending communication on paper, is not going green.

— Berthelsen is president of Suttle-Strauss Inc. in Waunakee.