I’ve always suspected it would come to this.
The uplifters of society, the scolding specialists who loathe our consumer comforts and want to use the law to de-materialize our habits and minds, the descendants of the colonial-era pastors who banned buckles on shoes and the preachers of the public good who banned beer by constitutional amendment, the puritan decriers of our household happiness, now have a new target in mind: paper towels.
The literary cloud no bigger than a man’s hand appears in the Atlantic. It decries Americans as uniquely evil for having an obvious obsession with paper towels. This year we will spend $5.7 billion on paper towels, which is as much as the rest of the world combined. Per capita, we will spend $17.50 on paper towels – which is less than I would have predicted but vastly more than the rest of the world’s people still attached to rags, mops, and sponges.
As for waste, the EPA keeps this data: 7.5 billion pounds of “tissue products” are disposed of yearly, and paper towels are part of this. But note that the figure here also includes toilet paper, paper napkins, and nasal tissue too. There is an ominous hint in this aggregation: first they will come for your paper towels, but other tissue products are on the list.
The article theorizes that this outrageous overuse of paper towels is symptomatic of a deep moral problem. The author names and shames the “uniquely American desire to be immediately rid of a problem, whatever the cost.” We seek instant gratification. Out with this damn spot, now!
The author also worries that we are having undue influence on the rest of the world, citing the prediction that by 2022, global spending on paper towels will rise by 4 percent.
This is just what you needed, yet another planetary disaster to worry about. It will surely require the intervention of public-spirited scientists and statesmen. Maybe a global paper-towel commission will be formed with the United Nations heavily involved. The studies and rhetoric are just beginning but make no mistake. This has all the makings of a movement. They are coming for your paper towels.
On the Other Hand
It’s true that there is something of a physical mystery concerning why anyone would throw away a paper towel rather than wash it out and let it dry. Ask yourself why you do it. Maybe the answer comes immediately. It’s all about the price. I’m looking at Amazon right now and find prices between half a penny and a penny and a half each, depending on design and thickness. That’s truly incredible.
And think of the engineering behind its creation. The tree takes years to grow. It must be cut and milled, pulped, cleaned, and reshaped, with the addition of strengthening agents, perforation, embossing, and packaging. Then it needs to be ported to the store and backed by a clever marketing campaign. Thousands of people are involved in making a single paper towel, with dozens of stages of production and some extremely fancy equipment constructed by the best engineers and maintained by highly trained specialists. No man can make a paper towel.
The Mighty Price
If you were a central-planning intellectual or statesman, and were tasked with pricing the final output, and you otherwise knew nothing about prevailing market conditions, how high would you think the price should be? One dollar? Two dollars? There’s no way to know. But I would suggest to you that it would not likely be half a cent.
The halfpenny price is precisely the signaling system that tells consumers to throw it away. That one price conveys vast information that informs our buying and consumption habits. Here is a fantastic example of F.A. Hayek’s theory concerning pricing: they provide awesome guides to action, rationing scarce goods in a socially optimal way, while granting us permission to do something that would otherwise be wildly implausible: tossing this thing in the trash after one use.
Let’s say that tomorrow there was a huge shortage of paper towels and prices went up by 100 times. Your household habits would change immediately. They should. And keep in mind that this price system only works in the presence of real markets, which in turn only work in the presence of private property rights and competitive enterprise.
There is no reason to speculate about the moral failings of Americans here and our base desires to be immediately gratified with the absence of spills. It’s all about economics. Economic forces have made a miracle, an enormously complex and long production structure ending in a product that costs truly next to nothing. All hail the market!
There’s another mystery here as to why anyone is in the industry at all. Paper towels were invented in the 1920s and the prices gradually fell over time. Let’s say your great uncle came to you and said: “Hey, I have a great idea for a product that will take months and millions to produce and then we sell it to consumers for less than a penny.” You would run, not walk away from that idea.
And yet, the industry is still huge and mighty.
It’s Recycled Too!
There’s another remarkable fact. Trees are not cut for paper towel production directly. Paper towels are made from recycled office paper, cardboard, envelopes, and other already used paper products. It is a clear case of market-based recycling, taking what would have been a complete waste and turning it back into something valuable. Our tut-tutting, moralizing, know-it-all journalist for the Atlantic didn’t happen to mention this fact!
Keep in mind that this is genuine, economically sustainable recycling, unlike much else that goes by that name. We have a profitable industry here that is able to make treasure out of trash, solely devoted to improving our household lives.
They want us to use rags, sponges, and mops again for all our small spills in the kitchen? Forget it. We don’t want cross contamination. We don’t want stinky sponges around our food. We don’t want to drag out buckets and rags just to remove that spilled milk on the counter. We don't need a new paper-towel tax; such a thing might inspire riots in the streets, and should. Our hands will be cold and dead before they pry the paper towels from our fingers.