Paper strikes back: defending books, mail and dollar bills

Fri Jun 1, 2012 4:19pm EDT

Related Topics

* Internet communications and slack economy cut into paper use

* Environmental advocates look for more recycling, efficiency

* As U.S. consumption drops, developing world uses more

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON, June 1 (Reuters) - Crumple it, drench it, lock it in a hot attic or a damp cellar but paper can come back to life.

It is doing so now, after taking a battering from environmentalists, the Internet and a glum economy. Paper partisans are pushing back, defending greenbacks as preferable to dollar coins, physical mail as hacker-proof and turning-page books as more permanent than digital formats.

Even some environmental objections to paper have turned around as companies work with green groups to foster recycling and grow sustainable forests.

"There's been kind of this rush to villainize paper: it's old-fashioned, it's wasteful, it's inefficient," said Lewis Fix, a vice president at papermaker Domtar.

His company launched an online campaign to rebuild the market for a 2,000-year-old product by focusing on the emotional resonance of paper.

"Paper is a sustainable, renewable, recyclable, plant-based product that connects us in so many ways to the important things in life," proclaims the homepage of Paperbecause (www.paperbecause.com). "Great ideas are started on paper. The world is educated on paper. Businesses are founded on paper. Love is professed on paper."

Even some who believe the world would be a better place if people used less paper seem attached to it.

Allen Hershkowitz loves magazines, books and newspapers but as a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, he has spent much of the past two decades trying to make paper use more efficient and less of an environmental drag.

U.S. CONSUMERS ARE WORLD'S BIGGEST PAPER USERS

His objection is not to paper itself but to the fact that U.S. consumers use so much of it: 728 pounds (330 kg) per person per year as of 2002.

That's more than twice the 254 pounds (115 kg) of paper Europeans use each year, he said, and nearly seven times more than the global average of 121 pounds (55 kg). Consumers in China and India use about one-tenth what Americans do, Hershkowitz said.

Globally, as world population doubled between 1950 and 1996, there was a more than sixfold increase in paper consumption, from 46 million tons to 300 million tons. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projected paper production would rise by 77 percent from 1995 to 2020 worldwide, and by 170 percent in developing countries.

The advent of office computers and the so-called paperless office around 1975 did little to slow this rise, Hershkowitz said. The ability to print documents created on computers may have had the opposite effect.

U.S. paper use is mostly tied up in packaging and hygiene products, like toilet paper, facial tissue, paper towels and diapers. Some of these are made from trees rather than recycled paper, and Hershkowitz reckons that should change.

"Should we be making toilet paper, a product we use for three seconds, out of timber, forests that in some cases have existed for hundreds of years?" Hershkowitz asked.

Tree usage carries heavy burdens for water, energy, air pollutants, solid waste and forests, he said, so cutting paper use would have a "meaningful ecological benefit."

"CIVILIZATION HAS ITS COSTS"

But Hershkowitz does not expect paper to disappear.

"Are we going to do without paper?" he asked. "No. Civilization has its costs."

Paper is one of the most recycled materials in existence, with 66 percent of paper products recovered for re-use. That's up from the 35 percent recycle rate in 1990, according to Mark Pitts of the American Forest & Paper Association.

Much of that recovered material is exported to China, which has lots of papermaking capacity but few trees to feed it, Pitts said. The Chinese use fiber recovered from U.S. waste paper to make paper products that are then sold in the United States.

"The fact that it can be recovered here, sold there, made into paper there and sold back here in the form of a book or notebook ... at a competitive price just shows you that the cost structure in other countries for production is different than it is here," Pitts said.

Paper companies make about $400 billion annually, according to RISI, an organization that tracks the world forest products industry. World paper demand in 2011 was 400 million metric tons, or about 441 million tons.

U.S. demand was roughly $72 billion worth, or 72 million metric tons in 2011. Of that, packaging container board - the kind of corrugated cardboard boxes used for shipping - accounted for 25.8 million metric tons and printing and writing paper products were 20.6 million metric tons. Packaging other than container board - things like cereal boxes and paper used in bags of pet food - was 14 million metric tons with tissue products at 7.6 million metric tons. At the bottom of the list was newsprint, at 4.3 million metric tons.

MORE BOXES, LESS PERSONAL CORRESPONDENCE

"Packaging is huge and packaging ... and tissue are the things that are growing," said RISI's John Maine. Demand for printing and writing papers, as well as newsprint, is declining with newsprint demand roughly one-third what it was at its peak in 1999.

Not coincidentally, 1999 brought a boom in electronic commerce, and even after the tech bubble burst in 2000, e-commerce and online communication grew. That led to the decline in newspapers and physical mail that continues today.

"There's no doubt that email and the digital world are changing the way people do business," said Joyce Carrier, who manages advertising and media planning for the U.S. Postal Service. "But first-class mail, personal correspondence - that didn't go away with email; that went away with telephones."

Carrier detects a disconnect between the way businesses and customers see mail: 30 percent of businesses think customers don't want to get messages through the mail while 60 percent of consumers say they like to get mail.

The latest postal service TV commercial promotes mail as more secure for business than online communication.

"A refrigerator has never been hacked," the announcer says as a woman is shown taping a document to her fridge. "An online virus has never attacked a cork board. Give your customers the added feeling of security a printed statement or receipt provides."

The dollar bill has not been immune from attack. Last October, Representative David Schweikert introduced the Currency Optimization, Innovation and National Savings Act to promote dollar coins and ultimately remove paper dollars from circulation.

ELECTRON-FREE MONEY

Doug Crane did not take this challenge lightly.

As vice president of Crane & Co., which has made the paper used for U.S. currency since 1879, Crane helped found Americans for George, a pro-greenback outfit. It argued that U.S. customers have not warmed to modern dollar coins, which were first issued in 1979, and that switching from paper to metal would cost more.

Besides, the eighth-generation papermaker said, Americans like paper money.

"Currency has attributes that make it attractive," Crane said. "It doesn't use an electron, so when you look in your wallet, you know how much money is there."

One choice more Americans are making is to read in an electronic format instead of on paper. But even reading and storing material in the online "cloud" carries environmental costs, according to Greenpeace.

Cloud computing runs on electricity, much of it generated from coal, which emits the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when burned. Greenpeace wants technology companies to switch to renewable energy.

"If cloud companies switch to clean energy, the booming Internet revolution could help catalyze the clean energy revolution we need around the world," Greenpeace's David Pomerantz said by email.

DISAPPEARING PAPER? NOT ANY TIME SOON

But the e-reading boom does not mean paper books will go away, said Nicholas Basbanes, author of "A Gentle Madness," an exploration of book collectors and the forthcoming "On Paper."

"People have predicted the end of the book for many, many years," Basbanes said. "I certainly don't see it disappearing any time soon."

Timothy Barrett, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant recipient who makes paper underlays for documents like the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives, sees paper as a crucial backup for digital records.

"In the field of paper chemistry, we talk about paper permanence, we talk about paper stability, how long paper lasts," Barrett said by telephone from the University of Iowa Center for the Book. "... Psychologically paper represents stability and the digital is constantly changing."

And there's an added benefit - if power goes out, a bound paper book can still be read.

"Your iPad will go blank on you," Barrett said. "But 'Huckleberry Finn' will never go blank on you. Even if you store it in a wet basement and it gets really badly molded, you can dry it out and it'll still be there." (Reporting By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Bill Trott)

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