Monday, January 7, 2013

Paper Cuts

You take all of your week's recycling out to the large bins lined up on the curb to be collected by the recycling hauler, and this is your weekly moment of virtue.  You're feeling good knowing that you're doing something good for the environment and reducing the overall amount of trash that goes into landfills, which actually saves the city a lot of money.  It feels good, and you feel good.

The bottles and cans rattle and clang as they hit the bottom of the empty large blue bin.  You're the first person to bring down your load this week.  There are the empty wine bottles from your recent party, so many of them.  You really drank a lot that night (and you were so happy that your wine store had that new Bordeaux on special.  It was so delicious and not very expensive).  Those are the plastic containers from Whole Foods.  Good if not cheap.  This one had the hummus and that one, the dolmades.

And then, there's a whole lot of paper.  Lots and lots of paper.  Paper from the pile on your desk, all of the envelopes from the endless fundraising solicitations.  Paper from the cardboard box your new book came in.  Paper from the newspaper you bought while getting your coffee last Saturday morning (although you're trying to move completely to the e-world with your new iPad).  Paper, paper, paper.

Well, John Schmid, a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, joined by a whole team at his newspaper, followed the Wisconsin paper industry and found a familiar trail with some unexpected twists.  The Wisconsin paper industry is collapsing.  It's a story of another Midwestern industry disappearing under the forces of technology and globalization, although in his NPR interview last night (found here), Schmid took pains to point out that his reporting team was trying to avoid that cliche.  His work is called "Paper Cuts" and can be found at Journal Sentinel's online site or by clicking here

The digital age is indeed putting pressure on the paper industry, though according to Schmid the industry seemed fairly immune during the first years of the 21st century.  Around 2006, however, that began to change. Schmid notes the irony of the papermill having to work overtime to produce the paper for Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, although there is probably no person who did more to move the world to the digital age than Jobs.  That feels to me like building your own coffin or digging your own grave.

And then, of course, there is China.  Once absent from the international paper market, they have emerged in a huge way in recent years.  The Chinese might say that they have re-emerged, since they view paper as one of their cultural patrimonies that they shared with the planet (along with gunpowder and the printing press).  Long thought not to have the wood resources necessary to supply the amount of paper needed by the world's markets, the Chinese have put ingenuity and determination to use, foiling that argument.  They are cross-breeding species of trees that grow to full height in one-tenth the time that a Wisconsin hardwood takes to grow, employing science to solve a problem.

But more telling than their odd and somewhat disturbing experiments with hyper-growing genetically engineered trees is their resourcefulness with something we Americans know a lot about -- waste.

You see, the vast majority of the paper you put into your recycling bin this week, the old envelopes and the cardboard boxes, will be snatched up by China to be reused and returned to the world's paper markets as perfectly serviceable paper products.  There are a number of lessons to take from this parable, but three come to my mind:

  • Of America's defining attributes, one is the ungodly amount of waste that we produce.
  • What we see as waste, China recognizes as value, because China realizes it has a huge amount of use left in it.  
  • America is sitting on a gold mine of wealth in the paper waste it produces, perhaps enough to sustain the Wisconsin paper industry, but we're blind to it, being so focused on Chinese-made plastic objects inside.

My little lessons aren't even the full story. The Sentinel's webpage doesn't let us off that easily.  It tackles the other component in all of this, the carbon question implicit in the paperless, digital world.  "The carbon dioxide emissions produced by running your computer for 23 days are the same as produced by an average American's use of office paper for a full year," it states with unsettling clarity.

Much of this leaves the head in a swirl.  The takeaways are many, but I can't help but focus on what seems to me incontrovertible -- Americans have an incredibly short-sighted view of our future -- a myopia that shapes our definition of what we want and what we need.  The singer referred to it as a "Culture of Now" recently on the BBC.  He is right.  There is a reason that we are out performed by the Chinese in so many spheres of economic activity.  One is the unconscionable amount of waste that we produce.  Another is that our pile of waste has a huge amount of value in it which we will not see.  The collapse of a centuries-old American industry, destroying a regional economy as it goes, gives us yet another chance to pause, look around and see what's staring back at us from the page.

(Not without my own ironic funnybone, I note that I publish this on my online blog.)