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Is paper-free really green?

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Is paper-free really green?

September 20, 2010 - 03:29
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SCOTLAND, UK, Sept. 20, 2010 (RISI) -In Part I of a two part series, Mandy Haggith, author and freelance environmental writer asks some pertinent questions relating to paper, electronic communications and the environment.

The don't print meme

In March 2007, the environmental website a post asking its readers to ‘help us start a meme', with the wording: "Eco-Tip: Printing emails is usually a waste. Make this tip go viral, add it to your email signature." It did go viral, and within months the message was circulating on billions of emails, both private and corporate. There were many variants on the exact language, but all exhorted the recipient not to print the email.

Memes are units of culture - ideas, practices or concepts - and were originally posited by scientists to provide an evolutionary explanation of the spread of cultural phenomena. Like genes, the most successful are selected through processes of competition, they undergo variation and mutation, and they reproduce. The memes which replicate the most effectively spread best and until recently paper has been the ideal meme vehicle. But the 100 billion emails circulating each day constitute an even more powerful medium for the spread of memes, and with 53% of people saying that they print more since they started using email (according to a study by IDC), it has provided a rich environment in which the "don't print" meme has been able to flourish.

What does the widespread adoption of the "don't print" message say about the reputation of paper versus digital alternatives?Bob Latham, of paper merchants PaperLinX, believes most members of the general public have a distorted impression of them. "There is a fundamental flaw in understanding of the nature of the two mediums," he says. "On the paper side, sadly, for most people it involves the death of a tree and is therefore perceived as bad. As for digital, there's a fundamental misunderstanding that it comes with virtually no footprint cost."

Don Carli, director of the Institute of Sustainable Communication in the USA, identifies in arecent paperthat"feelings of guilt and concern are on the rise about the use of paper and its alleged impact on the fate of trees, forests and the environment". However, be is critical of the "don't print" message as presenting an over-simplistic "false choice", as

digital alternatives to paper also have a significant environmental footprint.

Joshua Martin, director of the Environmental Paper Network, agrees that there is a widespread perception that most paper products are "dead trees", but he believes criticism of the "don't print" message is misguided. "Why focus on that?" he says. "Common sense dictates that if you've already read it online you don't need to print it as well and incur that additional, unnecessary footprint, not to mention additional cost to your business. It's a simple message about avoiding clear redundancy. It is important to advance our dialogue on this issue, but we should not be confusing people into thinking they are not doing a good thing by not printing their email, because obviously they are."

Paper = trash?

Some of the reason why paper has developed a poor public image, particularly in industrialised countries, is because of increasing concern about over-consumption and wasteful behaviour. Popular campaigns like the Story of Stuff and the fashion for minimalism and decluttering have reduced popular tolerance for low value paper products. Unwanted direct mail has caused controversy in North America and Europe, as people trying to reduce their weekly waste production are exasperated to receive, through their letter box, paper items that they send directly to be recycled. Government information campaigns, like swine flu advisory leaflets, inadvertently exacerbate the situation both by promoting disposable tissue use and by rapidly ending up in the bin. A sample from a "zen habits" blog gives a flavour of how paper is perceived. "Papers? Be merciless ... magazines, catalogues, junk mail, bills more than a year old, notes to yourself, notes from others, old work stuff ... toss it!'

The success, from a paper industry perspective, of big sales to a major buyer, may have an uncosted penalty. Conversion of a sustainably-grown quality paper product into unwanted printed material, creates a legacy of a widespread public association of paper with trash. Bob Latham says that some products have "bastardised" paper. "We could argue that free newspapers have added to the trashing of paper's image. In the short run it has helped some of the newsprint companies but in the long run it cheapens paper." The solution, he believes, is that the industry needs to focus attention on increasing value, not just volume sales. "Value not volume" is perhaps a meme whose time has come: businesses that adopt it may be best able to flourish in an environment of falling paper consumption.

"Paper industry campaigns that suggest increasing paper consumption saves trees appear super-defensive or just plain silly", says Joshua Martin.

Instead, efforts to improve the public perception of paper need to address ethical issues more deeply. Human rights abuses by a tiny proportion of the industry have had a significant effect on the public perception of paper. Indonesian forest peoples who have been displaced for pulp plantations have powerful advocates in Europe and North America and the success of the Fair Trade meme has greatly increased the importance that consumers place on social as well as environmental impacts.

As a result the market for ethically-traded and environmentally-sound paper products is no longer confined to an environmentalist minority. Companies offering quality products are becoming increasingly sensitive to the reputational risks associated with producers that cause negative social and environmental impacts. Greenpeace has recently demonstrated, with publication of its "Pulping the Planet" report, that major corporate paper buyers such as Tesco have robust procurement policies and are willing to cancel contracts with companies like Sinar Mas that do not satisfy their standards.

Look out for Part II of "Is Paper-free really green" at

Mandy Haggith can be contacted