Both sides of the paper

I cleaned my office. The paper piles had taken on lives of their own. I’m sure they were reproducing by themselves, spewing out progeny of useless, outdated information. I confess, it had been some time since I had seen the writing surface of parts of my desk.

I placed a 25 gallon tub next to me, being careful not to disrupt the stacks of reading material on the floor. By the time I finished sorting through the accumulations of mail, magazines, newsletters, printouts, catalogs, and other various pieces of information, I had filled the tub to overflowing.

Every time I threw a piece of paper that had been used on only one side I had a twinge of guilt and hoped that my father wasn’t watching me from above.

My father was born in 1895. After the death of his father when my dad was seven, he and his eight siblings were raised by their mother. Paper was a precious thing in their household. Having paper to write lesson on or to correspond to family far away was a luxury. Waste of any kind irritated him. Discarding paper which was only “half-used” was something he could not tolerate.

As my sisters and I were growing up, we were not allowed to throw paper which had been used on only one side. The drawings we made were done on the back side of homework sheets. The clothes we designed for our paper dolls had math problems on the reverse side. Our paper airplanes were decorated with the purple ink of “dittoed” test papers. Newspapers found second uses and notebooks were filled up before being thrown away.

My father would not have been happy with the 25 gallons of waste paper that I removed from my office.

As a child, I thought my dad was silly to be so concerned about wasting paper. After all, paper was cheap and there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply. Since the days of my childhood, the use of paper in this country has increased by more than six times. Even though it was argued that computers would reduce the overall use of paper, paper consumption has more than doubled since the mid-1970’s.

The average American uses more than 660 pounds of paper every year. That is the equivalent of about 66,000 sheets of paper. Although paper was originally invented as a communication tool, currently less than half of the paper consumed is used to share information. More than half of all paper is used for packaging and we throw most of it away. Paper makes up as much as 40 percent of our solid waste.

Our casual use of something my father valued so dearly is causing a depletion of forests, is placing an ever growing demand on the planet’s water supplies, and creates huge waste disposal problems. Even though trees from which paper is made may be from renewable sources and some of it is made of recycled paper, the energy used to cut the trees, mill the paper and haul the waste away is used up. The bleaches used to make paper snowy white and the dyes used to make some colored papers can be extremely toxic in the amounts used by the paper industry.

We now recycle 42 percent of our waste paper which is a vast improvement from a few years ago. Still, Americans throw away enough office and writing paper annually to build a wall twelve feet tall from Los Angeles to New York.

I wonder how much of that wall would have printing on only one side?

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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