Paper, Plastic or Neither?

By Joe Romano, 

Marketing Manager

Our choices at all levels — individual, community, corporate and government — affect nature. And they affect us.

— David Suzuki

Chances are good that you don’t recognize the name Ts’ai-Lun, yet without his contribution to daily life you probably wouldn’t be able to read this issue of GreenLeaf. In The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, a 1978 book by Michael H. Hart, Ts’ai-Lun was listed as the seventh most influential person in human history, right behind Muhammad, Isaac Newton, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Confucius and St. Paul. In the top ten, he numbers ahead of Gutenberg, Columbus and yes, even Einstein. His contribution outweighed those of Aristotle, Galileo and Edison!

You use his invention so many times a day, every day of your life that you seldom notice it, but in fact, you almost certainly are touching it right now.

In the year 105 A.D., in Leiyang, China, Ts’ai-Lun invented paper as we know it today. Of course he was so influential because in addition to creating a medium for the written word, Ts’ai-Lun developed a product that is used for packaging, lighting, decorating, insulating, construction, currency, personal hygiene and identification, and is used in every industry from agriculture to aerospace. People even eat rice paper.

He began his career as a eunuch, an official serving the court as an inventor and manufacturer. When he showed his invention of paper to the emperor, he was quickly raised to the nobility and was made a very wealthy member of the court. It wasn’t long, though, before he found himself embroiled in scandal and intrigue and was forced to end his own life by drinking a bottle of poison.                                                                                          

The history of the growth of the use of paper oddly parallels the life of its inventor; while at first it was an incredible boon, and helped the human race to communicate and flourish, now paper production has grown in use until it is literally everywhere. We as a planet are choking on it.

Today the US is the largest producer of paper products in the world, and uses over fifty million tons a year. Widespread use of virgin paper means widespread deforestation. More than four-fifths of the forests of the world are seriously damaged. We need forests to act as carbon dioxide sinks to hold pockets of carbon dioxide and keep it from being released into the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming.

Businesses like GreenStar have to step up and try to deal with the massive amounts of paper that are used for communication, packaging, hygiene  and other uses. GreenStar staff have switched over to the use of electronic documents whenever possible, cutting back on the use of office paper, and we have committed to using 100-percent post-consumer recycled paper for the paper we do have to use.

In our receiving areas, our deliveries are packaged in tons of cardboard boxes every year. To counter this, we have purchased a baler which will improve the efficiency with which the cardboard can be recycled, to the point where paper recyclers will be willing to pay for our waste cardboard because it will be so easy to recycle.

We have been working with the Tompkins County Solid Waste Management Division, which has done an audit at GreenStar to help us improve the efficiency with which we recycle our solid waste. Based on their recommendations, we will be forming a “Green Team” that will ensure efficiency and find new ways to lower our impact.

Of course, we don’t use plastic bags at our registers and we have tried to minimize plastic packaging in our Deli, Produce and Bulk Departments, but we are going to have better signs in our stores that will help people to be sure which packaging to put in our compost and which goes into paper recycling. Look for those around the store in the weeks ahead. We are also looking into issues that have been brought to our attention regarding the “corntainers” and corn bags we currently use. The possibility that these corn products contribute to the growth of the GMO corn industry is one issue we want to look into. Also the efficiency of composting those containers themselves is another. GreenStar staff, the General Manager and the Green Team will look into all the issues surrounding the use of packaging around the store and we will find ways to use fewer resources and make the most of those we must use.

The Green Team will also be looking for ways to lessen the use of paper- and corn-based bags at the register and will even examine the idea of finding alternatives so that we might at some point be able to eliminate their use altogether.

In first-century China, there were already some rudimentary uses of paper before Ts’ai-Lun perfected the technique; after all, he was the designated court inventor and manufacturer.

Now that we have been designated by Ithacans as our city’s most socially-responsible business, whom else could you expect to find better and more sustainable ways to address the packaging issues that confront grocery and retail as an industry? Keep in mind that many of these ideas and concerns were brought to us by our member-owners, as were some of the solutions.

Please help GreenStar to continue to find and implement the best possible business practices we can. In this way we can continue to inspire other businesses to follow our lead. After all, it was Confucius who said that, “The superior man seeks what is right; the inferior one, what is profitable.”  I suppose that is why he was number five on the list of most influential people in history.


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