I extend a warm welcome to Eric Friedman, Discard Studies’ newest contributor.  A sociologist, Friedman’s work focuses on the forces behind urban decay, renewal, and stasis. The example he explores in most depth concerns Journal Square, the formerly vibrant commercial and cultural hub of Jersey City, NJ, that is now a desolate place scarred by decades of neglect. Future posts from Friedman will discuss Journal Square in more detail. Today’s contribution is about a topic that, at first glance, seems humble, even mundane. Friedman deftly demonstrates otherwise.

“How many times a day do you reach for a sheet (or two) of paper towel?  This simple act of reaching, tearing, and wiping (or squishing an unsuspecting insect) transpires without much conscious thought.  What is this peculiar commodity that comes in rolls, or – in the case of hotel and restaurant bathrooms – in awkward, c-folded rectangles?  How did we become so addicted to paper towels?  How, I wonder, did Bounty and Brawny and Sparkle so completely replace the reusable cloth towels and rags of days gone by?  And what became of the rag pickers whose ubiquitous presence and recycling activity in the urban economy has been so well documented by Barrie M. Ratcliffe (among others) in his work on Parisian rag pickers in the early nineteenth century [Editor’s note: the complete citation is in our Resources section, under Articles].

I purchase my paper towels by the case these days.  The rolls themselves are labeled “jumbo” or “huge.”  Endlessly consuming the rolls has become routinized; I drive to the buyers’ “club” and we seem, miraculously, to have a constant supply. My home serves as an example of what Susan Strasser has called an “open system”: the paper towels enter the system and after being used they are excreted out with no prospect for reuse (unlike rags or cloth towels that can be washed and reused, the paper towels simply add to the bulk of my weekly trash and live on in dump sites as toxic pollutants).  As part of my domestic system, I cease to really see them any longer; they just pass through our hands unnoticed.  They are ontologically empty.  Or are they?

Most paper towels contain chlorine bleach to ensure whiteness for those consumers who dreadfully fear any variegation in their paper products.  In “Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action,” viewers can learn more about the devastation caused by industry in Maine where paper towels are bleached.  On the Penobscot River in Maine, Native Americans who rely on fish from the river are grappling with grave environmental and health concerns stemming from upriver pollution; in a nutshell, the consequences of paper production are making people very sick.  As a result of the bleaching processes used to manufacture paper napkins and towels, dioxin enters the river water.  The river, rather than being seen as a sacred part of nature, has been transformed into a profane pipeline through which toxins flow to the ocean.  There is much to think about when we reach for a sheet of paper towel.” –Eric Friedman