NRDC's This Green Life
A Journal of Sorts
February 2004 / Links updated 2012

My father was passionate about trees and passed the feeling on to me. Inspired by him, I used to sketch them from life. The results weren't particularly realistic, but they weren't lime lollipops either. Though no artist, to this day I enjoy sketching a tree.

As a child, I was taught to minimize my paper use, and still feel pained to waste a page. I scribble notes on used envelopes, keep email strictly electronic and read the newspaper online. For meals, I use cloth napkins, and for spills, a rag or sponge. Of course, I recycle. my father When my kids throw out a perfectly good piece of paper, I can't help screaming, "you're killing a tree!"

For years, I complacently pursued the three R's (reducing, reusing and recycling), in the belief that I was doing enough. Then, I became aware that to be effective, I had to buy recycled paper, too. Frankly, I found this part hard. I liked the soft toilet paper and bright white printer paper I was used to, and balked at the idea of going out of my way to get everyday supplies. But over the years, the range and quality of recycled products has improved. My local supermarket now offers a choice of recycled tissues from Marcal and Seventh Generation. And Staples, finally buckling to grassroots pressure, began offering recycled papers in 2002.

When I shop, I look for the words "post-consumer recycled" on the label. Other so-called recycled paper is made from industrial scrap—better than virgin wood, to be sure, but not good enough. I try to get products that are at least 50 percent post-consumer recycled, which means that half the material comes from previously used paper. Even then, the remaining 50 percent comes from virgin trees (unless the label says otherwise), and that's still not very good, is it? So, though I settle for 50, I'm not really happy unless I get 70 percent or more.

The stakes are high. Worldwide, paper accounts for 42 percent of the trees cut down by industry each year. While some are harvested from tree plantations (a problem in their own right, like other industrial farms), many come from our dwindling natural reserve. Nearly half the earth's original forests have already been lost, and with them, precious habitat for forest-dwelling species—one cause of the mass extinction many scientists believe is underway. Meanwhile, 40 million acres of forests continue to disappear each year.

But forests are not just valuable—or valued—for their role as habitat providers. People love them for the feelings they evoke, as I was recently reminded on a family trip to Concord, Mass. Though we'd gone, at my son's urging, to tour Revolutionary War sites, we found time for a side trip to Walden Pond. It was bitterly cold and the pond was frozen over. As I walked across its snowy surface, surrounded by trees, dazzled by sunlight, and deafened by a howling wind, I felt both exhilarated and awed. Call the experience what you will—religious, spiritual, transcendent. All I know is, Thoreau was on to something.

So while NRDC works to save forests like the Tongass National Forest in Alaska through citizen action campaigns, I will continue to do my part at home and in the stores where I shop. Anything less would seem like a betrayal—not so much of the environment as myself.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


Wood-based paper is a relatively new idea. For most of history, paper was made from other plants and rags. Today, "tree-free" papers are making a comeback. If you've ever been lucky enough to page through a 200-year-old book, as I have, you know how fine tree-free papers can be. Sources, alone or in combination with post-consumer recycled paper, include:

Rags - Old rags were the preferred source for paper in the West until shortages in the 19th century led papermakers to switch to trees.

Hemp - This versatile plant is thought to be a prime ingredient in the earliest paper, created by Ts'ai Lun in China in A.D. 105. Rags and mulberry bark were probably mixed with it.

Flax - Flax is the plant used to make linen. It also makes great paper.

Straw - Agricultural residues—such as rice, wheat and corn straw—can be turned into paper.

Papyrus - Papyrus is the source of the word "paper." Nevertheless, it isn't a true paper, as it's made of crisscrossed strips from the pith of the papyrus reed, not mashed fiber (pulp).

Note that it's more energy- and water-efficient to make paper from waste materials (whether straw, rags or paper) than from crops grown from scratch, like hemp. In other words, as a general principle, recycled is better, whatever the source (tree-free or wood).

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Family photos
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.

My father (at left), circa 1970, enjoying the woods near our house.


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NRDC's OnEarth

The Tennessee Tree Massacre

Earth's Green Crown

Selecting an Environmentally Friendly Paper

Environmental Paper Sources

Use Forest-Friendly Paper

Better Paper Project

How to Make Paper at Home

NRDC's Idee Fixe. Ever wonder why NRDC makes such an effort to protect Canadian forests like the Great Bear Rainforest? I used to—until I learned that Canada has 25 percent of the world's remaining frontier forests, second only to Russia. Frontier forests are large, ecologically intact forests capable of providing habitat to the full range of native species, including big carnivores. Outside Alaska, the U.S. has almost no frontier forests left.

My sketch of the tree across the street—one of only two on the block. It used to be a scrawny thing, but now is entering its swan phase.

Walden Pond photo
Thoreau's view. Here I am at Walden Pond, a few steps from the spot where Thoreau's cabin once stood.

The Chlorine Factor. White paper products are usually bleached with chlorine, which is converted to dioxin during the papermaking process. This poison is then released into waterways, where it threatens wildlife and, ultimately, human life.

Fortunately, you can now get alternative products, whitened without chlorine. When buying post-consumer recycled paper, look for the term PCF (processed chlorine free) on the label. Other papers, including tree-free products, will say TCF (totally chlorine free).

Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996,designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.

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