By Elizabeth Anne Hull
An article I read some time ago in The Week (my favorite print replacement for the now online-only World Press Review) reassures me that “No, paper isn’t dead.”
As I’m buried in paper in various forms — greeting cards (ones received as well as those not yet sent), photographs, wills, old and new contracts, spanking new passport, officially notarized documents, old correspondence, even junk mail, and yes, books and magazines and newspapers — I looked at the facts mentioned in the longish essay with more than a little interest. A theory says that we learn more thoroughly by reading print than we do from electronic media. I’d like to believe that, but don’t know if I do. More research, please.
Coming at the question of paper’s obsolescence from another angle: Most retail stores no longer offer much choice of how to protect our food and other purchases on the way home. Upscale department stores seem to favor paper bags with handles, tony boutiques sometimes use a light-weight cotton bag, discount department stores use mostly plastic; Costco provides optional repurposed cardboard boxes with the tops razored off; outside California, most grocery stores offer only flimsy plastic, while Trader Joe provide paper for those who don’t bring their own bags.
But we give very little thought to the real costs of old sources of carbon (oil, coal, natural gas and fracked gas) versus new, renewable carbon (trees, plants, animal furs and hides, etc.), and the unintended consequences of our choices. We have yet to make a good realistic assessment of the overall cost of producing energy and plastics by consuming fossil fuels that took many millennia to form.
I don’t doubt the potential and immediate benefits to the planet from preserving the dwindling forests of the globe, but there also may be sustainable ways to farm trees and other raw materials, like cotton and hemp, etc. that make pretty good paper. The earth is certainly making new oil; the problem is, it takes such a long lead time in human perspectives.
Another consideration in sustainability might be the petrochemical products involved in creating electronic devices. I know I prefer writing on a computer to writing on paper. Much easier to revise. But nothing does as well for me as paper for jotting down a daily to-do list. Easier to triage and prioritize and let my daughter add to as she thinks of suitable stuff. And of course, we still need women’s sanitary supplies and American toilet paper!
So I’m quite convinced that paper is not dead — yet.