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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Read this before you flush

April 22 was Earth Day, and I let the occasion pass without a blog post. Let's see if I can make up for it.

One huge problem environmentalists face is that everyday taken-for-granted consumption habits can have an enormous cumulative effect on the planet's ecology.

Consider the use of toilet paper, for example. The May/June 2010 issue of World Watch Magazine* included an informative piece by Noelle Robbins on the destructive environmental impact of toilet paper.

Global demand is, um, overflowing, thanks to population growth and adoption of western habits throughout the developing world:
In 2005, according to the marketing analysis firm RISI, world per-capita consumption of toilet paper was 3.8 kilograms. But the range is wide-North American per-capita consumption was highest at 23 kilograms; the lowest reported was Africa, at 0.4 kilograms-and consumption growth could be closing the gap. In 2008, China and Western Europe saw toilet tissue growth rates of 5 percent, followed by Eastern Europe at 4 percent growth and Japan and Africa at 3 percent. North American consumption remained stable.
It takes a lot of trees to make toilet paper for the entire planet, which puts tremendous pressure on forests and habitats around the world -- and destroys a valuable carbon sink as well:
Worldwide, the equivalent of almost 270,000 trees is either flushed or dumped in landfills every day, according to Claude Martin of WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature). Roughly 10 percent of that total is attributable to toilet paper.
The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that toilet paper accounts for about 15% of deforestation worldwide.

The solution would appear to be more recycling -- of office paper and newspaper, of course. The US alone will throw away and bury nearly 15 million tons of reusable paper this decade, which is about 60 percent of what it uses. Only 40% is recycled, despite the obvious advantages:
according to the [University of Colorado's Environmental] Center, one ton of recycled paper (909 kilograms) saves 3,700 pounds (1,682 kilograms) of lumber and 24,000 gallons (90,849 liters) of water; uses 64 percent less energy and 50 percent less water to produce; creates 74 percent less air pollution; saves 17 trees; and creates five times more jobs than one ton of paper products from virgin wood pulp.
TP made of recycled paper is typically not as white or comfortable as the non-recycled kind, but that reflects manufacturing decisions and is not necessarily inherent to the enterprise. Obviously, however, consumer demand plays a large role in these consumption decisions. Advertising may well play a significant role in shaping consumer desires.

Offices, stadiums, and other public facilities already rely upon recycled paper, so this is really an individual consumer choice for their homes. Put simply, more of us need to demand higher quality recycled TP -- and buy it.

Happy Earth Day.

*World Watch magazine is another casualty of the current recession, which has been hitting journalism particularly hard. The May/June 2010 issue is the next-to-last to be published.

The Chemical & Engineering News piece I linked at the end of this post suggests that the recession is reducing the supply of recycled paper too...

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