By Frances Lamberts
I got to know a student from a foreign university (Aachen, Germany) who, taking a study semester in New York found herself searching in stores and numerous shops several days before finding cloth towels for drying the dishes. The American companion with whom she shared student housing was used to and knew only paper towels for the purpose. According to a survey, more than 320 million Americans consider themselves paper-towel users, our consumption being the highest in the world.
Reportedly, manufacturing just a ton of them takes 17 trees and some 20,000 gallons of water. At the disposal end, they are a substantial portion of the paper waste which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, makes up a fourth of all municipal solid waste.
A Romanian-born poet-novelist, Herta Muller, devoted her literature Nobel Prize acceptance speech (2009) to another common lifestyle item – the handkerchief. This had “fluttered through” her life and was fondly remembered as stapled in separate rows – for the men, women and children in families’ handkerchief drawer – for its many caring uses. It, too, almost universally made of cloth in earlier days, has given way to paper tissue and, with annual consumption of 250 billion of them and per capita consumption of 27 kg, the average American is its highest user. It, too, is made from trees and requires copious amounts of water and electricity in manufacture, contributing to landfill waste.
When the internationally known pediatrician, Dr. Helen Caldicott, author of many books such as “If you love this planet” gave a talk at ETSU some years ago, she famously exhorted the audience with “Don’t wipe your nose in trees.”
Through a new “Issue with Tissue” report, the Natural Resources Defense Council reminds us that massive logging today, much of it for throw-away paper products, comes with high risks for the climate, and for the plant and animal species which keep forests and other ecosystems functioning.
According to the report, Canada now ranks third in intact-forest loss, behind Russia and Brazil, a million acres annually being clear-cut from its boreal forest and the great majority of the pulp and paper exports going to the United States. Most end up in the disposable tissue products from the major companies producing these, like Proctor & Gamble and others.
Fortunately, there are several new companies which, much more sustainably for the forests, use 100% recycled paper in these. Among them the report lists the Target company’s “Everything” products, and Seventh Generation, long available at Kroger’s, where the morning newspaper we have read reappears, as post-consumer recycled content, in toilet tissue and paper towels.
Switching to these in our everyday use, or maintaining or reverting to the semi-permanent linen or other cloth items as in earlier times, where possible, would be a good way to show love of the earth, following this year’s Earth Day.