Is Tree Guilt Justified?

If you read the New York Times online (who doesn’t?) you can’t have missed Starbuck’s Make A Difference campaign on April 15th. The coffee company bought the Times home page for the day, with a double-wide banner ad at the top of the page, featuring the Make A Difference “film” (or what used to be called a commercial).

The film showed, in a series of swiftly moving images, New Yorkers of all stripes exchanging their paper cups for plastic reusable mugs, then placing the paper cups, coffee inside, on the ground to form a huge pixelated tree (a redwood, I think).

Besides a bit of missing logic (they appeared to be exchanging a full paper cup for an empty plastic mug) the ad was quite successful in tapping into a simple desire of Homo Greenus: to Save the Trees by using less paper.

But a growing array of studies on paper versus digital communications, combined with push-back from paper suppliers, seeks to counter this instinctive reaction.

The classic analysis (PDF) of the benefit of disposable paper cups versus reusable, from the University of Victoria, shows that plastic mugs would have to be reused anywhere from 15 to 39 times to make up for the extra energy expended in their manufacture and cleaning. Many people do use those mugs that many times; many others have five such “reusable mugs” that they never use, or use them only when they wouldn’t use a paper cup anyway–like when going for a hike.

I suspect at least a few of the mugs Starbucks gave away will meet a similar fate.

And as a recent post on GreenBiz points out, going digital is not necessarily more tree-friendly than using paper communications, either. Sustainable paper manufacturers plant trees and husband forests to ensure their long-term viability.

And then there’s the digital world’s reliance on electricity generated by coal, the dirtiest source of energy. When it comes to mountain top removal mining, that’s not very easy on the trees, either.

Greenpeace recently pointed out this paradox, noting that with the growth of cloud computing, data servers electricity requirements will triple by 2020.

Finally, the paper industry itself is seeking to counter our natural inclination to want to protect the trees. A Website sponsored by the Printing and Graphics Association of the MidAtlantic, called Print Grows Trees, points out that, according to the United Nations, even dreaded clear-cutting is not deforestation, if the grower immediately replants the land, as many paper manufacturers do.

The site also points out that when the price of paper drops, there is less incentive to husband trees like a cash crop. Instead, the trees are removed and the land converted to agriculture or development resulting in a permanent loss of forest.

I was not totally convinced by their logic. Mountain top removal may be more devastating in that location than clear cutting would have been, but those mines do not cut nearly as wide a swath as a logging operation.

Still it is worthwhile to listen to these contrary opinions as we swig our Starbucks from a plastic, reusable mug. At the very least they remind us of the one overriding principle when it comes to the environment: nothing is as simple as it seems.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

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