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Pundit’s Mailbag — Contrary To What You May Have Read: “Using wood signals the marketplace to grow more trees.”

Our recent article, Department Of Sloppy Thinking: “Save a Tree” Environmentalism Doesn’t Make Much Sense, pointed out the logical flaw in thinking that there would be more trees in the world if we would only stop using paper products. We received a few notes on the subject. One came from a new Pundit contributor who sells hand dryer and was not happy with our approach:

Making paper towels is a very energy-intensive process.  Hand dryers do not use that much energy. As a result, it takes more energy just to make paper towels than it does to dry hands. So that whole side of your argument gets thrown out.  

Plus paper manufacturing uses a lot of chemicals, and then you have to drive the paper to its location and then off to the landfill where it sits after only one use.  

Also, apple trees are not chopped down every time you want to use them. Sure, paper companies plant trees, but this isn’t broccoli that grows quickly and does not have a big impact when you harvest it.

The sloppy thinking title seems very apropos.

Chris Berl             
Owner / President
Restroom Direct
Huntersville, North Carolina

While we appreciate Mr. Berl’s contribution and we are sure is a fine man from which to buy hand dryers and other restroom appliances, we find his argument unpersuasive and off point.

First, he makes many assertions but doesn’t point to one link or reference to establish these assertions as facts.

Second, even if these assertions are all true, one has to do a kind of “lifecycle analysis” to know anything useful. For example, a lot of electricity is generated by coal and that coal has to be mined and transported. Is that better or worse for the environment than the chemicals used to make paper? We don’t know, and Mr. Berl’s letter doesn’t help us.

Third, Mr. Berl does not address recycling at all. Paper towels seem like something that could be easily made from recycled paper.

Fourth, nobody is opposed to offering consumers the option to use electric hand dryers. The issue is whether consumers should be denied a paper option.

Finally, the issue we were discussing was not whether paper towels or electric are better for the environment. We were addressing the issue of whether a specific factual claim was correct or not: Would there, in fact, be more or fewer trees in the world if people did not use paper products?

Our assessment was that the creation of a market for the products made from trees encourages their planting, secures land for that purpose and, in general, leads to more trees than would exist in the absence of such a market.

This position is endorsed in a thoughtful manner in the following letter from an old friend, a former PMA staffer and PMA FIT Executive Director, writing from her new post with a printing association in Georgia:

Even after two years have passed since I left PMA, I still scan and read your column. Thank you for printing the piece on Department of Sloppy Thinking: “Save a Tree” Environmentalism Doesn’t Make Much Sense.  In my position as Executive Vice President of the Printing & Imaging Association of Georgia (PIAG), this is a battle we are constantly fighting. 

I am a firm believer in the Triple Bottom Line of People, Planet and Profit.  As a consumer who is concerned for our planet, I believe it is important to be committed to understanding the facts about sustainability and not blindly follow corporate claims that are mere veiled attempts at cutting expenses versus employing truly sustainable business practices. 

You are correct that like apples, trees are a crop and are harvested in sustainable ways to ensure continued crop growth.  In fact, there are roughly 600 million trees planted every year by the paper and forest products industry, surpassing the amount harvested – about 1.7 million trees planted per day and roughly three trees for every one harvested.  As a result, there are more forests in the US today than there were 50 years ago (American Forest and Paper Association 2010). 

The Co-founder of Greenpeace, Dr. Patrick Moore, wrote “forestry is the most sustainable of all the primary industries that provide us with energy and materials.  To address climate change, we must use more wood, not less. ‘Using wood signals the marketplace to grow more trees.”

While I love my digital technology, the truth is that one of the most significant causes of deforestation in the US can be linked to greater use of digital media.  According to the Department of Energy, electricity consumed by data centers in the US doubled from 2000 to 2006, reaching more than 60 billion kilowatt hours per year.  That’s roughly the amount of electricity used by 559,608 homes in one year.  The EPA expects that number to double again by the end of this year.  And if you consider that 57% of the electricity generated in the US comes from coal, and mountaintop removal of coal is one of the more significant direct causes of deforestation in the US, you begin to see the bigger picture regarding true sustainability. 

If you are interested in more facts about the environmental impact of the internet, check out this video — — titled, How Green is your Internet?

The bottom line is that all businesses, whether paper or paperless, need to be careful about claims they make regarding the environment.  Companies should not use the environment to inappropriately position their businesses as something that they are not merely for personal gains. 

If you want to use air hand blowers because it saves you money, then do it but don’t use the environment as a shield. Those who know the truth will see through this ploy and will consider you disingenuous. So I leave you with this… next time you get an email, feel free to print it, read it at your leisure and then recycle it knowing that it will come back in another useable form like cardboard, toilet paper or post-consumer recycled paper — thus continuing the green cycle of life.

As always, it is great to read your thought-provoking columns.

—Cindy Seel, CAE
Executive Vice President
Smyrna, Georgia

It is always nice to hear from old friends, and we are flattered that even two years out of the industry, Cindy still finds value in the Perishable Pundit.

Many of the specific claims made for and against things are difficult to verify. Recycling itself is not clearly beneficial. You need to evaluate the environmental impact of setting up a whole separate infrastructure to pick up and distribute waste.

The truth is that this is the great blessing of markets. They tell us whether it makes sense to do something through the price mechanism. The best public policy response is probably not to “decide” what is wise or not; it is to seek out what economists call externalities and compensate for them. So, if a town has a free landfill, the world will generate more waste for the landfill than is optimal. Optimal being defined as the amount that would be generated if waste producers had to pay the full cost of the landfill.

Clearly issues such as environmentalism, sustainability, etc., are often used as covers for actions taken for other means — green-washing, as it is called. Think of all those hotels that claim they don’t change your sheets or your towels as a result of a commitment to the environment — when, conveniently, that saves the hotels lots of money. In one of the early Pundit pieces, we reviewed how at a time when many supermarkets were dropping selling live lobsters due to poor sales and low profitability, Whole Foods turned it into an opportunity to seem ethical to its core customer.

Some of this is marketing puffery and to be expected. But if our nation is to prosper, we need to be cautious about doing things because they superficially appeal to be beneficial. It is “save a tree” the first day, and a half billion dollars invested in Solyndra the next.

Many thanks to both Chris Berl and Cindy Seel for weighing in on the subject of environmentalism and sloppy thinking.

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