Paper trails: from trees to trash – the true cost of paper

Paper trails: from trees to trash – the true cost of paper by Mandy Haggith was published by Random House in 2008. I have only recently discovered the book, in its ePub edition. The sub-title makes clear what the book is about, provided one recognises that ‘cost’ refers to environmental and social, as well as economic, cost.

From the first chapter (‘Addicted to pulp’) Haggith makes readers aware of our huge consumption of paper throughout our lives, from the ‘medical chart in a maternity ward’ to the ‘death certificate and coroner’s report’. The bulk of the book is devoted to educating the reader about the paper industry’s impacts through various stages of paper’s life-cycle – from planting and felling trees, through pulping and processing, to landfill at the end. 

The text blends three types of writing – (a) travelogue, based on Haggith’s visits to various sites – principally forests, plantations, and mills – around the world, from Vancouver Island to Indonesia (the book would have made a great television documentary series); (b) analysis; and (c) evocation – of the beauty of the ecosystems in question.

Before reading this book, I hadn’t given much thought to my use of paper, beyond seeking to use certified paper (principally Forest Stewardship Council-certified) and buying a certain amount of recycled paper for office use. This book has persuaded me that such an approach is lazy. In particular, it drew attention to problems even with the  Forest Stewardship Council’s certification scheme  (even though she favours it) : the scheme allows some logging of old-growth forests – and all schemes are at risk of being undermined by corruption and practices outside the law.

A strength of the book is that it explains some of the ecological processes involved. It seeks to demonstrate that monoculture reduces biodiversity and the planting of exotic species can have dramatic effects on the water table as well as driving out native species.

Paper Trails is about the paper industry in general, rather than about publishing in particular. As such, it may be thought of as a companion piece for  Rethinking Paper & Ink: The Sustainable Publishing Revolution (Ooligan Press; reviewed  4 June), which deals with the impact of the publishing industry in general (not only its use of paper). In places, however, Paper Trails does focus on publishing – especially in the chapter on Canada (‘Harry Potter and the Pulpmills of Doom’). The chapter closes with an account of Raincoast Books’ decision to print Harry Potter and the order of the phoenix on recycled paper.

Few books on sustainability have made as strong an impression on me as Paper Trails – in fact, I don’t think any have. The book left me with a strong presumption that I should change my consumption patters – in particular, by switching to chlorine-free and recycled paper and, above all, reducing my paper consumption. 

So far as our publishing business goes, my thoughts, having read this book, run as follows: (i) that originally we set out to publish only in e-book form; (ii) that we relaxed our policy (from ‘e-book only’ to ‘e-book mainly and print-on-demand where necessary) because parts of our target market – Creative Writing Studies – is relatively unenthusiastic about e-books; (iii) that I now wonder whether we should revisit that decision and set a date beyond which publications become e-only; but (iv) before taking that kind of step I want to triangulate Haggith’s argument against other research findings (and here I should register a criticism of the book, namely that the bibliography is rather light on scientific references).

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2 Responses to “Paper trails: from trees to trash – the true cost of paper”

  1. I wondered if you might also triangulate against the true cost of e-books, i.e. non-renewable energy usage, extraction and disposal costs of lithium, depletion of oil reserves to produce plastic, and the energy wastage of the likely short lifespan of e-readers, and so on. Computers end up as landfill pretty quickly, so why should e-readers be any different? As least paper books can be recycled. I am being mischievous, but as a post-Christmas e-reader owner invited to ‘accessorize my Kindle’, what are the true environmental costs of my leather lighted cover?

    I also also wondered whether there might be some quantum for environmental depletion against cultural enrichment (including remembering of information per unit of energy), by which index paper books would score pretty well.

    I haven’t read the book, which sounds interesting, but it also sounds like it was written on the upside of the anti-codex cycle of hype.

    • Thanks, David. I certainly agree that e-books have environmental costs (touched on this point in an earlier post, ‘Green publishing?‘). I suspect that estimates of the environmental costs of e-books have been underestimates, because the development of new models/editions of e-readers has turned out to be very rapid and my guess is that many adoptors are upgrading by buying the latest kit.

      A couple of things that I liked about Paper Trails that perhaps I didn’t make explicit in the review. The first is that Haggith admits honestly to loving using paper herself – and to seeing her work in print. So if I’ve made her sound anti-codex, I’ve been unfair to her. In fact, she doesn’t give so much attention to books. She focuses more on magazines (especially copies that are printed but not read), packaging, and, above all, luxury toilet rolls. A second feature I liked was that the book didn’t reduce all environmental impact to a matter of carbon emissions (which has I would argue become a ‘monoculture of the (green) mind’): it details (though in lay terms more than scientific) impacts in terms of ecological systems and biodiversity. I think the focus of the book accounts for the impact it’s made on my thinking.

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