Is the "paperless project" really more environmentally friendly?

The environmental impacts of items that we use every day can be difficult to fully understand. Protocols exist to assess a “cradle to grave” life cycle of any product, but not everything has been put to this sort of intense examination.

Forest with fog

It’s probably good to read a post-apocalypse novel, once in a while.  They can be good reminders of just how convenient and abundant life can be, and how we all really are connected to our collective economy.  Even those friends “off the grid” who might think that they’re independent, really are not.    

I muddled over the “we’re all in this together” idea as I was cleaning patio doors, using paper towels.  As I wiped in circles, my mind meandered to a family member that doesn’t use paper towels, as she thinks that helps the environment.  Paper towels were targeted in recent years by the “Paperless Project”, which uses a lot of bad data to paint erroneous negative pictures of paper towel use, among other paper products.  Their arguments are easily refuted, but their claims sound reasonable, even noble, at the surface. 

Paper towels come from renewable resources, trees.  Nearly all other raw materials are not renewable.  North America, overall, does a reasonably good job of managing forest resources.  Using other materials, such as cotton, requires monocultural crops and large amounts of annual chemical inputs.  And much of our cotton and textiles are sourced from countries where social justice is not much of a priority.  Personally, I prefer sourcing materials from more ecosystem-healthy forests than land subverted to annual crops, at least when possible.  Although, I have to admit that I have a preference for cotton clothing. 

However, I cannot point to any accredited life cycle analyses that specifically compare paper towels to more reusable substitutes.  Although, in the end, I suspect that the paper products would win the day.  In the bigger picture, there are volumes of life cycle analyses that clearly show almost anything made from trees is environmentally preferable to products made from any other raw material, by a wide margin.  Using wood is good. 

More importantly, perhaps, is that paper towels, and paper products in general, provide a market for smaller and lower quality trees.  You might ask ,“Why is that a benefit?”.  That would be an astute question. 

The short answer is that managed forests produce more benefits, more goods and services, including invaluable ecosystem services.  They provide more than unmanaged forests.  And, forests cannot be managed without harvesting trees.  And, trees cannot be harvested without a commercial incentive.  This is where the sometimes counter-intuitive value of forest product industries enters the stage, including the paper sector, which includes, of course, paper towels. 

Professional forest management that removes smaller and lower quality trees from the forest, leaves the residual stands in a healthier and more productive state.  These improvements cannot be made without wood markets. 

Clearcutting forest types that require full sunlight to regenerate (done by nature via wildfire, wind, insects, pathogens, etc.), produces a wide range of log products, including plenty of lower quality and small diameter wood.  The paper industry is a major buyer of this wood.  The larger and higher quality wood goes to sawmills, veneer mills, and other manufacturing outlets.

Regions with a vibrant forest product infrastructure, will better utilize harvests from well-managed forests, and that region will have more healthier and productive forests.  This, in turn, provides a wider range of end products that most of use regularly, such as paper towels.  It also puts more money into the pockets of the forest owners (both public and private), as well as the larger economy.  Both economies and forests are complicated things. 

While the reluctance among my kin to use paper towels cannot be scientifically or ecologically justified, I respect her values in trying to make a better world and be a wee bit gentler on the planet.  I have these same ethics.  I don’t argue the paper towel aversion, as my “footprint” probably isn’t significantly different than her “footprint”.  So, I haven’t a lot of incentive to pick at particular practices when we’re all in the same boat. 

Thinking back to my latest post-apocalyptic novel, if and when that boat sinks, I suspect that a paper towel debate won’t even be considered.  I hope that day never comes.  For now, I continue to clean my patio doors using paper towels, happy in the notion that I’m contributing to a better forest and more robust economy, as my thoughts then wander in other directions. 

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