When was the last time you went to a public restroom, or even a Starbucks, and took just one paper towel or napkin? And what did you do with the rest? Think about this: We Americans make up less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we use 30% of the world’s paper – seven times the world average, and twice the average for industrial nations.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, global paper use has grown more than six-fold since 1950. The statistics are startling: one fifth of all wood harvested in the world ends up in paper. Pulp and paper is the 5th largest industrial consumer of energy in the world, using as much power to produce a ton of product as the iron and steel industry. In some countries, including the United States, paper accounts for nearly 40% of all municipal solid waste.
“Making paper uses more water per ton than any other product in the world,”claims Janet Abramovitz, co-author of the Worldwatch study. ”It also produces high levels of air and water pollution – all to make a product that is usually used once and then thrown away.”
That got Linda Lannon and Mary Wallace to thinking. Mary had been spending a lot of time in Japan – where you don’t leave the house without your “handkerchief,” or small washcloth. If you’ve ever been to a Japanese public restroom – as I have (an inevitability, having lived in Tokyo for 2 years) – you know there’s rarely a paper towel in sight. “Handkerchiefs” are so much part of the culture that you can buy them virtually everywhere – from museums, to news kiosks, to department stores. Travel websites even remind tourists to bring them along.
But back to Linda and Mary. “We started talking about the impact of paper towels in the U.S. and how the Japanese were so far ahead of us in so many sustainable activities,” Mary explains. “Thus the idea of PeopleTowels was born.”
Linda and Mary were both senior executives at different companies and new to “green” business. They kept their day jobs as they got ready to launch their company. What they found out along the way was quite a wake up call. “We consume mindlessly. I don’t think people connect the dots, and quite frankly I didn’t connect the dots about paper towels until I started doing research into this business,” says Linda. ”When you realize that if one person would stop using paper towels for a year they would save one quarter of a tree, and reduce landfill waste by 23 pounds, and conserve 250 gallons of water, that’s significant savings.” In fact, by Linda’s estimates, Americans produce over 3,000 tons of paper towel waste every day.
Unlike their Japanese counterparts, Linda and Mary’s towels are made from lightweight 100% organic, fair trade cotton, and printed with eco-friendly dyes. “It’s important that our supply chain and everything about PeopleTowels walks the walk,” says Linda. PeopleTowels is also member of “1% for the Planet“ – and donates 1% of its sales to the Breast Cancer Fund, which is dedicated to eliminating the environmental causes of the disease. Which as Linda points out, is another reason the towels are organic. “Cotton as a crop uses more pesticides than any other crop,” she claims.
With small businesses focused on sustainability gaining a stronger foothold in the U.S., Linda and Mary hope portable cloth hand towels such as theirs catch on in the same way canvas shopping bags and refillable water bottles have. By Linda and Mary’s count, each one of us uses close to 3,000 paper towels a year. “We do believe everyone can have a positive impact on the environment by making small sustainable changes,” Linda says. “This is one of those small sustainable changes that people can make to have a big environmental impact.”
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