EarthTalk: What happened to the "paperless office"?

The paperless office does appear to still be a distant dream. A recent University of California, Berkeley study found that, worldwide, the amount of printed matter generated between 1999 and 2002 not only did not decrease — it grew by 36 percent.

Dear EarthTalk: What happened to the "paperless office" that computers were supposed to create? And what is the environmental impact of our paper usage?

— Michelle Barnes, Virginia Beach, Virginia

The paperless office does appear to still be a distant dream. A recent University of California, Berkeley study found that, worldwide, the amount of printed matter generated between 1999 and 2002 not only did not decrease:It grew by 36 percent.

The quantity of information we now store electronically is growing in leaps and bounds. And while we're using less paper as a percentage of total data output, we're still using more paper.

"Contrary to notions of paperless offices floated by futurists in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the consumption of office paper has gone up substantially in recent years," the report said.

Not surprisingly, the United States is the biggest paper consumer, accounting for 33 percent of all printed material. U.S. paper producers alone consume 1 billion trees - or 12,430 square miles of forests - every year, while producing 735 pounds of paper for every American. Only 5 percent of America's virgin forests now remain, while 70 percent of the fiber consumed by the pulp and paper industry continues to be generated from virgin wood.

Besides consuming trees and habitat, processing paper generates tons of industrial pollutants. The pulp and paper industry is the third-largest industrial polluter in both Canada and the United States, releasing more than 220 million pounds of toxic pollution - including dioxin, a cancer-causing byproduct of the chlorine-bleaching process - into the air, ground, and water each year.

Paper is also the dominant material in solid waste. And in the United States, paper-producing companies are the third-largest energy consumer.

In recent years, advocates for ecologically sustainable paper, like the San Francisco-based Conservatree, have grown more vocal in support of both increasing the use of recycled paper and developing alternatives to wood-based paper. As a small step, it has succeeded in persuading large paper retailers like Staples, Kinko's, and Office Depot to offer higher amounts of recycled content in the paper they sell.

Alternatives to tree-based paper include various kinds of agricultural wastes, like corn and rice husks; a plant called kenaf; and hemp. One agricultural waste paper is made from 100 percent bagasse fiber, left over from sugar cane production. Kimberly-Clark uses bagasse in some of its paper towels and tissues.

But many consider kenaf, a relative of okra and cotton, and hemp, to be the most promising alternatives, especially for office papers. Kenaf, which originated in the East Indies and is now grown in the United States, Thailand, and China, is making inroads as a wood-based paper substitute. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has deemed kenaf "the best option for tree-free papermaking in the U.S."

Hemp is a very strong fiber, making it excellent for paper processing, and it is easily bleached without chlorine. Beginning in 1840, American-grown hemp was used to make manila paper. Hemp cultivation has been illegal in the United States since the end of World War II because it is a relative of the plant grown for marijuana. But the strain of hemp grown for paper does not contain enough quantities of psychoactive chemicals for it to be used as a drug, and its cultivation is encouraged in 29 countries around the world.

Dear EarthTalk: I'm noticing a lot of nondairy alternatives to milk and cheese products in my supermarket these days. Are they any good? And what are the health benefits?

— Cailin White, San Francisco, California

Dairy products are among the leading causes of food allergies, and there are growing numbers of people who seek to avoid them for that reason, or because their bodies are lactose intolerant, or because they seek to avoid all foods that come from animal sources as part of a strict vegetarian diet.

Another concern is recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which is administered to an estimated 30 percent of conventional dairy cows to increase production. Some scientists believe that consuming dairy products from rBGH-treated cows may increase the risk of prostate and pre-menopausal breast cancer.

The nondairy offerings you are seeing are primarily soy-based products. Soymilk has been around for years, and recently soymilk makers have tweaked tastes and textures such that they're now much more appealing to the American palate.

Whether you buy them fresh in the dairy case or in aseptic (paper and foil) packages, you'll notice that they vary greatly in taste from one brand to the next. Even varieties made by the same company can vary, as soymilks come in low fat, low-carb, vanilla- and chocolate-flavored, unsweetened, and vitamin-fortified versions.

Once you find one you like, you can use it, cup-for-cup, as a milk replacement in most recipes or just drink it straight up. Look for brands labeled "USDA organic," as those won't contain genetically modified ingredients or residues from pesticides.

Edensoy, one of the original soymilks, is sold in those easily stored aseptic packages, which don't need to be refrigerated until opened. White Wave's Silk, which is sold cold in the dairy sections of many supermarkets now, has a smooth taste and even mixes well in coffee. It also comes in vanilla, chocolate, and eggnog flavors. Hain Celestial's Westsoy offers fresh soy shakes and lattes as well as plain milks.

If you're looking for nondairy alternatives to cheese, some of the faux cheeses can be downright inedible, while others are delicious. TofuRella cheddar flavor is harsh on the palate, though low in calories and fat compared its dairy counterpart. Lifetime Low Fat Jalapeno Jack Rice Cheese, made from rice milk, is quite tasty. It is low in fat and calories and tops pizza well (though don't expect it to melt quite as well as conventional cheese).

The very edible and tasty-in-a-sandwich Good Slice Cheddar Style Cheese Alternative from Yves Veggie Cuisine is lower in fat and calories than most others. Galaxy Nutritional Foods offers a particularly wide range of alternative cheeses from mozzarella to cream cheese to feta crumbles.Dairy-free cheeses are not found as readily in mainstream supermarkets as the soymilks but are available in most natural foods markets such as Wild Oats, Mrs. Green's, Whole Foods Market, and others.

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Source: E/The Environmental Magazine