Quite often, we don’t know what we think we know. I was reminded of this recently while trying to dry my hands under one of those pathetic air dryers in a McDonald’s bathroom. In theory, these things shoot a blast of air and you rub your hands in this personal wind tunnel until they’re dry. In reality, however, your hands aren’t dry until you pull out your shirt tail and wipe them on that. Anyway, as this particular machine was huffing and puffing, I noticed the decal on it that proudly pronounced that I was saving all kinds of trees by using a hand dryer.
This got me to thinking, just how many trees am I saving?
I searched the internet and a constant figure that pops up is that it takes “17 trees” to make one ton of paper. There seems to be an image in our society that those 17 trees are taken by evil logger-business men who, in the middle of the night, sneak onto the village green and mercilessly cut down 250-year-old oaks under which, not only did George Washington pin a medal on the proud chest of the town founder, but on which your grandfather carved your grandmother’s initials. We know (well, most of us know) that’s not where those trees come from, but if we stop and think a minute further, there are all kinds of questions that need to be asked about those 17 trees: Where do they come from? How big are they? What kind are they?
According to a multi-citation Wikipedia article, it actually takes a mix of 24 hardwood and softwood trees, 40’ tall by 6-8” in diameter on average, to make one ton of writing paper, and 12 such trees to make one ton of newsprint. Therefore, we can conclude that the figure of 17 trees needed to make paper towels sounds about right. The article also states that 16% of those trees come from forests specifically planted for pulp production and 9% come from old growth forests. The other 75% come from “second and third and more generation forests.”
Much of the “wood” that comes from trees not planted specifically for pulp is actually the byproduct of the lumber industry, i.e. sawdust and wood chips. This is the claim on industry websites, but it also stands to reason since no one is going to cut down the old oak tree for pulp when they could cut it down for lumber and make a much greater profit. [Interesting side note: The wood shavings and sawdust produced in the making of Hillerich & Bradsby baseball bats is collected and sold to an Indiana turkey farmer for bedding.] In other words, we are saving few, if any trees, by using those air dryers.
We accept certain statements as true because they have been repeated so often that we assume they are true or because we want them to be true in the first place. It would be nice to think that by using an air dryer we are doing something for the Earth, but are we? Especially if I have to use 12 napkins to dry my hands after “drying” them under that confounded wheeze box. I am all for good stewardship of the land and I am all for paper producers making money. Those things do not have to be mutually exclusive, but what I am really for is a constant review of our own assumptions.