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When the computer-age took off in the 1990s, lots of people thought we'd use a lot less paper. But that hasn't happened. Julie Grant reports on why environmentalists are so concerned about all the paper we're still using in our offices and homes.

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When the computer-age took off in the 1990s, lots of people thought we'd use a lot less paper. But that hasn't happened. Julie Grant reports on why environmentalists are so concerned about all the paper we're still using in our offices and homes:

Allen Hershkowitz knew that the computer revolution wasn’t going to lead to a paper-less society. He’s been a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the NRDC, since people first started using email.

“Very early on, even at NRDC, we started to see people printing out documents that would otherwise have been retyped or emails that shouldn’t have been printed out.”

Hershkowitz says Americans use 7-times more paper than the average person on the planet. And computer printouts are just the beginning. Packaging, cigarettes, tissues and toilet paper - Hershkowitz has seen firsthand the devastation the demand for all that paper it’s causing.

“Ancient forests, forests that have existed way before Christ and Moses and Mohammed, for 10,000 years, are being cut down for toilet paper. A product we use for 2-3 seconds. This does not make sense.”

Hershkowitz says this deforestation causes more global warming pollution than all the trucks, buses, planes and ships in the world combined. He scoffs at products like 3-ply toilet paper, and compares using them to driving a gas-guzzling Hummer.

In Europe and Asia, much more of the toilet paper is made from recycled paper. Americans get beat up in the international press for allowing their delicate buttocks to devastate the world’s forests.

For five years, the environmentalist group Greenpeace held protests against the Kimberly Clark Corporation, maker of Kleenex tissues, for cutting Canada’s Boreal Forest and other forests around the world for its products. Greenpeace’s campaign against Kimberly Clark took late night political comedian Stephen Colbert by surprise.

Colbert: “Now for starters, who knew toilet paper came from trees? I always assumed it came from cartoon bears.”

Greenpeace recently ended their protests. Kimberly Clark agreed that by next year 40% of the fiber in their tissue products would come from recycled paper. But while environmentalists support this concession, it does not please Mr. Colbert.

Colbert: “Have you seen recycled toilet paper? Environmentalists, I swear, if you take away my plush toilet paper, I’m just going to use the next softest thing – spotted owls.”

Most paper makers aren’t opposed to using recycled material in their products. Dan Sandoval is an editor at the publication Recycling Today. He says most cardboard boxes and newspapers are already made from recycled paper.

And that recycled toilet tissue? He says that’s usually made from old office paper. The stuff we use for printing and writing. But a lot of times office waste is all thrown together – and isn’t clean enough to be recycled into something new.

“You know, when you’re collecting it all together here, you’re going to get some telephone books, some post-it notes and things like that that people are throwing together. Plastic windowed envelopes. Some of that stuff is like, it’s kind of iffy on that. So you get more material, but the quality goes down.” Sandoval says that means the paper mills have to invest in a lot more cleaning equipment. And some times it costs more than just cutting down trees. Still, he says the trend for companies around the world is toward more recycled content. Environmentalists want paper companies to move faster.

And they say consumers also need to do their part. In the office, they want people to print less, and at home, they’re asking people to stop buying toilet paper that’s 3 layers thick.

For The Environment Report, I'm Julie Grant.

Copyright © 2010. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.>

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