By Jeanette Arnquist

When we were younger, my husband Cliff and I used to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevadas. After a five or six day trip from Onion Valley, over Kearsarge Pass to Bishop Pass, we came out into civilization in Bishop, checked into a motel, drank cold water, took long showers, had a quick dip in the pool, took another shower and went out to dinner.

While at the restaurant I made a trip to the ladies’ room. After washing my hands, I grabbed a paper towel and dried them. I took a look at the paper towel and determined that it had a lot of life left in it, so I folded it up and put it in my pocket. Then I laughed out loud as I realized I was no longer on the trail.

While on the trail, we carried all our trash, including toilet paper. On this particular trip, it all fit neatly into a single one-gallon Ziploc bag. There is no such thing as throwing something away while on the trail. Which brings us to the question: Just where is away?

Let’s take a look at the history of a paper towel. It takes 17 trees and 20,000 gallons of water to make one ton of paper towels. Recycled paper towels come from recycled paper, which also comes from trees. The destruction of trees is one of the causes of climate change.

What happens when we are finished with a paper towel? Even if we put it in our pocket and use it again, it eventually winds up in a landfill. Paper accounts for about a quarter of landfill waste and landfills account for a third of human-related methane emissions, which are a major contributor to climate change.

There are no two ways about it. Paper towels are having a negative impact on our planet. But eliminating the use of paper towels is not going to save the planet. Perhaps thinking about paper towels will raise awareness and cause individual people to reduce their dependence on disposable paper products, which would be a good thing. Maybe it will lead them to make other personal choices that lessen stresses on the planet.

Many of the personal choices we can make are just a matter of changing our habits and would not really change our lifestyle. For example, things like using cloth shopping bags, LED lightbulbs, using old hand towels instead of paper towels, using cloth napkins, printing documents on both sides (or not printing them at all.)

Other personal choices involve big decisions and a lot of money, such as putting in solar panels or driving an electric car. Still others involve lifestyle choices such as choosing to use public transportation, living in a smaller house closer to work, eating less meat, consuming less in general, and a biggie, limiting air travel.

But all the personal choices that goodhearted people make added up together will not cause the kind of change that is needed to stop climate change. Choices made by groups who operate facilities like churches or schools and choices by cities, states and nations are necessary. Not all these choices are going to be popular or easy. Not all these choices will result in cost savings in the short term.

It is time for humanity to have a shift in consciousness and attitude so that we can make the big choices that we need to. If we are going to pass on to future generations this beautiful planet with its diversity of nature and habitable climate, we need to get beyond our own convenience and pocketbook.

For the common good of the planet, start by looking at a paper towel and possibly folding it and putting it in your pocket. But let’s not stop there.


Jeanette Arnquist is a former Director of the Department of Life, Dignity & Justice for the Diocese of San Bernardino. She is retired and living in Tucson, Arizona where she remains active in social concerns ministries.

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