Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Dear Umbra,

Can you bring some balance and common sense to the Wall Street Journal‘s aw-shucks oversimplification of the issue of to print or not to print emails? I learned about it from a few colleagues’ change in email signatures, encouraging people to print their emails to promote a “sustainable” industry. I was amused at first, but now I’m getting worried. Greenwashing a wasteful habit is trivializing and dismissing a serious contribution to our landfill issues and carbon footprint.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

Bit o’ Sunshine

Cat on printer.Don’t get too cozy with the idea of printing out reams of emails.Photo: Marco VariscoA. Dearest Bit o’ Sunshine,

Thanks for beaming that ray of light (cue Madonna) onto this strange shift in email signature trends. I was in the dark on that one, and quite surprised to read the Wall Street Journal piece you sent, which at one point says not printing documents “may indirectly hasten the conversion of forests to other uses like strip malls, parking lots and housing developments — because the nation’s forest landowners can’t keep growing trees without markets for this natural, organic and renewable product.”

The basic gist is that, contrary to those taglines like “Please consider the environment before printing this email,” people should feel free to print away because paper is biodegradable, trees clean our air, and the industry provides millions of domestic jobs.

Tricksy indeed. This argument sounds quite compelling at first. The authors sprinkle in all those feel-good words like “recyclable,” “natural,” and “sustainable.” Printing one’s emails sounds downright noble and countercultural by the article’s end.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Perhaps those “Do not print this” email taglines are having such an impact that the paper industry is scared. (Hey, if putting a single “These come from trees” sticker on a bathroom paper towel dispenser really saves 100 pounds of paper annually, you never know.) The wobbly newspaper industry and the rise of e-readers likely has them spooked too (although goodness knows the iPad, Kindle, and other shiny gadgetry have environmental problems of their own).

The problem with the WSJ piece is that it encourages wastefulness and a consumer mindset that is oblivious to consequences. (Print away, America! Ignore those crazy hippies who tell you to consider the Earth for a fleeting moment!) Yes, paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is grown and harvested responsibly, and recycled paper lessens waste, pollution, and energy use — but the piece makes no such qualifications when encouraging printing.

And as you say, my sunny friend, what about the carbon footprint incurred by printing, from the emissions of trucks hauling the trees, chemicals involved in bleaching and processing paper, and more emissions from transporting the paper to warehouses and offices? The WSJ piece evokes a mental image of a smiling tree in a sun-dappled forest being magically turned into your TPS report, blissfully omitting any environmental consequences along the way. According to the FSC, logging is often accompanied by “habitat destruction, water pollution, displacement of indigenous peoples, and violence against people and wildlife.” As one commenter points out, “A tree plantation is not the same as a natural forest and does little to support wildlife because it contains no biodiversity, just acres of a single tree species. And paper mills are some of the most polluting factories in all of industry. Where’s the sustainability in that?” And what about the energy used by office printers, and the resources that go into their production? Or the paper and printers and ink cartridges in landfills?

Let’s review. The overall problem is making people feel good about not questioning their consumption. Obviously printing some things is unavoidable. My wish is for people to think twice about the massive consumption machine we live in, and question the status quo. I think I’m going to get a tattoo that says, “Reducing is more important than recycling.”