First some facts. Paper production is the second-largest use of fresh water in the world (presumably after agriculture). Paper production accounts for 11% of all fresh water used. Paper production is the single largest contributor to cutting forest and makes up a huge portion of the volume poured into our landfills. Changing to narrower margins, using .75” instead of 1” as the default, results on average in a savings of 4.7%. In 2004, when Americans used eight billion tons of paper, changing to narrower margins would save 380,000 tons of paper (yes, that’s a lot less than 4.7% but there are many uses of paper that are not affected by changing the margins, such as grocery bags).
These facts are what provide the motivation to the woman behind ChangeTheMargins.com. Great idea because, as she says, it’s a tiny change that causes no inconvenience whatsoever, but does have some very large aggregate effects.
That said, I can’t help but think of it in terms of William McDonough’s work (see my review of Cradle to Cradle). McDonough, one of the most brilliant and innovative environmental thinkers, argues that environmentalists are overly focused on efficiency. Of course, all things being equal, efficiency is better than inefficiency, but McDonough says that making a fundamentally unsustainable and dangerous process 4.7% more efficient, still leaves us using 95.3% of the same inputs and creating 95.3% of the waste products. That makes me think that what we really need to do is rethink the paper-making process.
We may be a long way off from biofuels that are truly practical. As I’ve said before, fueling our cars and homes off corn-based ethanol is absolutely unsustainable. Paper production takes a fair bit of energy from transporting the wood, to pulping it, to running the massive high-temperature dryers that dry the almost-finished product, to delivering the paper to market. Recycling only helps so much there, and we have to hope that the energy inputs can eventually come from algae, switchgrass, willow and other such sources that scientists are working on. That technology is still some way off.
On the other hand, there is no technical reason whatsoever for paper production to be raping virgin forest. This is pure economics: the US Forest Service and similar institutions in the US and Canada make virgin too cheap with cheap leases and subsidized roadways (the US Forest Service operates the largest network of roads in the world). Meanwhile, farmland lies fallow and gets turned over to shopping malls in the Midwest. This land, however, could be turned over from fallow to cultivating fast-growing, high-pulp plants that could make paper. Kenaf produces enough pulp that it is estimated that 5,000 acres could keep a 200-ton/day paper mill supplied. An acre of kenaf produces roughly three to five times as much pulp in one season as an acre of forest does in 7-40 years. In other words, it takes from one twentieth to one two hundredth as much land as growing pulp from trees, and none of it need be crucial forest habitat (see the Vision Paper site). This is mostly a matter of habit and an economy that is distorted due to a long history of indirect subsidies through USFS roadways. No doubt, the factories would require retooling and it’s not an instant change, but mills that run on yellow pine could be converted and cheap sources of pulp that are close to the plants should provide enough incentive for producers to eventually retool.
Finally, there is the problem of water, which is a double problem. In much of the US, especially West of the Mississippi river, we are facing an impending water crisis. We are simply using it up faster than it is getting replaced and, if we are to avoid the collapse of the Western US, we need to conserve. Furthermore, pumping water around the country is one of our most energy-intensive activities (in Californian, water utilities are the largest users of electricity, which is why most are in the power generation business as well). As I type this, a brief soundbite from Schwarzenegger came across the radio and I caught the words “water crisis”! Making water turns out to be a little harder than growing hemp, but if we make water more expensive, large users will no doubt start doing grey water recycling. Personally, if my water bill rose by 50%, that would hardly affect me at all. It would only be a few dollars. Only domestic users who live in places where they have no business growing green lawns (i.e. almost anywhere West of the Mississippi), but insist on growing them anyway, would have a significant increase in their water bills and, frankly, that’s their stupid choice. I live in a place maladapted to growing lawns, so we do not grow one and neither to most of our neighbors. I don’t understand the American obsession with lawns no matter what the economic and environmental cost (most lawns are laced with a cocktail of poisons anyway). Large users like paper mills, though, would have great incentive to recycle their water and reuse it.
The final problem is waste. Paper recycling is simply not a continual process. Paper can get recycled once or twice and then it is just waste. Bill McDonough’s solution is simply not to be used at all. His book is printed using reusable synthetic paper and, at least in theory, reusable ink. That’s his vision anyway. Realistically, though, for low-value applications, it may be hard to match that. Perhaps there should be no low-value uses for paper. If prices rose, perhaps we would be forced into reusable and truly recyclable materials. In the meantime, one can hope that the same enzymatic processes that will eventually allow for energy production from willow and switchgrass will also make it possible to turn paper into fuel, rather than just burying it. There are, of course, many inefficiencies in that system, but it beats putting it in the ground.
In the meantime, go change your margins and print on both sides of the paper.