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Paper towels create a major drain on the environment. Hopefully this isn’t news to you, but paper towels do actually come from trees. Now of course, the paper industry calls trees a “renewable resource,” which serves to remind consumers that they shouldn’t worry. Anyone can plant more trees right? Sure they can. In fact, all of the major paper industry manufacturers plant tons of trees each year. That said, let’s be honest and admit that planting new trees is hardly the same as preserving years-old forests. Plus, no matter if the paper industry plants trees or not, the issue is more complicated than you might think.
Conserveatree points out that, “Counting trees individually misses much of their value. “Saving forests” should be the resource focus. Trees are not a “crop” in the normal sense of the word. They are not planted on agricultural farmland. Before a tree farm is planted, forests have to fall. While some trees are grown on plantations for the paper industry, particularly in the southern United States, these replanted trees do not make a true forest. They are usually managed intensively, with heavy use of petrochemical inputs such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.” On top of this, replanted trees, unlike real forests are not self-sustaining and tree pulp used for paper products can only be considered a true “renewable” resource when the wood has been certified as sustainably-harvested. Paper towels create other problems too, beyond ruining forests, such as:
- State of the Paper Industry report by the Environmental Paper Network notes that the pulp and paper industry is the 4th largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
- The US Fish & Wildlife Service notes that industrial paper plantations is the leading cause of freshwater wetland loss.
- Almost all paper towels are manufactured with chlorine, a known toxin which also releases extremely carcinogenic dioxins into the environment. In fact, in 1985, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labeled dioxin “the most potent carcinogen ever tested in laboratory animals.”
- According to various reports, the paper industry is highly responsible for the release of persistent toxic pollutants into the environment, including the above mentioned chlorine but also mercury, lead and phosphorus.
- The paper industry is the biggest industrial water user of all time, using up around 11% of all freshwater in industrial nations.
- Paper accounts for 25% of landfill waste plus a full third of municipal landfill waste, and in turn, municipal landfills account for one third of human-related methane emissions.
- Paper towels are terribly difficult to recycle and in spite of paper being touted as biodegradable, paper often doesn’t even break down in the landfill.
- Most commercial inks used for paper towel designs are made with petroleum, a non-renewable resource.
All in all, the Environmental Paper Network notes that, “Global paper consumption is currently running at more than 350 million tons per year and fast approaching an unsustainable one million tons per day.” Every time you buy paper towels you’re contributing to a massive eco-problem.
It’s a Good Thing I Buy Recycled Paper Towels!
If you’re buying recycled paper towels, it’s a step in the right direction, but nowhere near as good as ditching paper towels altogether. Recycled paper towels do have some pros. For example an NRDC study found that if every household in America bought just one roll of recycled paper towels instead of a roll of virgin paper towels, it would save 544,000 trees. Paper made with 100% recycled pulp content uses a significantly lower amount of energy and creates less pollution, fewer greenhouse emissions, less wastewater and less solid waste too. Recycled paper towels aren’t problem-free though. Some issues associated with recycled paper towels include:
- The biggest problem with recycled paper towels, in my opinion, is that they’re a ‘feel-good’ product. Basically, they give people the illusion of taking a great green step, when in reality, a much more sustainable step is to go paper towel free.
- Recycling paper pulp into new recycled paper products still uses water, energy and chemicals. In fact, the Environmental Paper Network notes that producing recycled paper may sometimes use more purchased energy in the form of fossil fuels and purchased electricity than virgin paper.
- Lifecycle assessments on paper towels have not been able to prove that creating recycled paper products over virgin paper products offers significant environmental benefits.
- Conservatree, which is hands down one of the biggest recycled paper pushers, admits that reducing all paper use is a much more sustainable goal than using recycled paper.
- One study found that unused recycled paper towels contained between 100- to 1,000-fold the concentration of bacteria as virgin wood pulp paper towels. This is thought to be due to bacterial slime which is common at recycled paper mills.
- No matter how you slice it, recycled paper towels are still a disposable product with a short-use lifespan.
Coming up, an easy step-by-step guide to eliminating paper towels from your life once and for all. It’s easier than you think, even if you’ve got messy kiddos!