Dear EarthTalk:

What happened to the "paperless office" that computers were supposed to create, and what is the environmental impact of our paper usage?
-- Michelle Barnes, Virginia Beach, VA

The paperless office does appear to still be a distant dream. A recent University of California-Berkeley study found that, worldwide, the amount of printed matter generated between 1999 and 2002 not only did not decrease--it grew by 36 percent. The quantity of information we now store electronically is growing in leaps and bounds. And while we're using less paper as a percentage of total data output, we're still using more paper. "Contrary to notions of paperless offices floated by futurists in the late 1980s and early 1990s," the report said, "the consumption of office paper has gone up substantially in recent years."

Not surprisingly, the United States is the biggest paper consumer, accounting for 33 percent of all printed material. U.S. paper producers alone consume one billion trees--or 12,430 square miles of forests--every year, while producing 735 pounds of paper for every American. Only five percent of America's virgin forests now remain, while 70 percent of the fiber consumed by the pulp and paper industry continues to be generated from virgin wood.

Besides consuming trees and habitat, processing paper generates tons of industrial pollutants. The pulp and paper industry is the third-largest industrial polluter in both Canada and the U.S., releasing more than 220 million pounds of toxic pollution--including dioxin, a cancer-causing byproduct of the chlorine-bleaching process--into the air, ground and water each year. Paper is also the dominant material in solid waste. And in the U.S., paper-producing companies are the third-largest energy consumer.

In recent years, advocates for ecologically sustainable paper, like the San Francisco-based Conservatree, have grown more vocal in support of both increasing the use of recycled paper and developing alternatives to wood-based paper. As a small step, they have succeeded in persuading large paper retailers like Staples, Kinko's and Office Depot to offer higher amounts of recycled content in the paper they sell.

Alternatives to tree-based paper include various kinds of agricultural wastes, like corn and rice husks, a plant called kenaf, and hemp. One agricultural waste paper is made from 100 percent bagasse fiber, left over from sugar cane production. Kimberly-Clark uses bagasse in some of its paper towels and tissues. But many consider kenaf, a relative of okra and cotton, and hemp, to be the most promising alternatives, especially for office papers. Kenaf, which originated in the East Indies and is now grown in the U.S., Thailand and China, is making inroads as a wood-based paper substitute. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has deemed kenaf "the best option for tree-free papermaking in the U.S."

Hemp is a very strong fiber, making it excellent for paper processing, and it is easily bleached without chlorine. Beginning in 1840, American-grown hemp was used to make manila paper. Hemp cultivation has been illegal in the U.S. since the end of World War II, because it is a relative of the plant grown for marijuana. But the strain of hemp grown for paper does not contain enough quantities of psychoactive chemicals for it to be used as a drug--and its cultivation is encouraged in 29 countries around the world.

CONTACTS: Conservatree, (415) 721-4230, http://www.conservatree.com; Kimberly-Clark, http://www.kimberly-clark.com; USDA Agricultural Research Center, (301) 504-5664, http://www.usda.gov. From E-Magazine – week of 6/6/04