Debut Guest Post! Friedman’s “Washing Up”

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

6 thoughts on “Debut Guest Post! Friedman’s “Washing Up”

  1. I also buy paper towels by the case load and feel a sense of panic when they are running low. Despite having a kitchen drawer full of cloth towels, I never seem to reach for them. I must admit to being a little obsessed with the “hygienic” aspect of using paper towels, never feeling cloth towels are quite “clean enough” upon washing.

    My obsession with paper products is partly due to the fact they were such a rare commodity when I was growing up. Paper products were expensive and my parents didn’t believe in waste. In fact, my father sometimes picked tissues out of the garbage can just to show his children that they hadn’t been “used” enough to be discarded! I now realize that stocking boxes of tissues in every room or my home and buying paper towels by the case load is my very own form of rebellion against being told to conserve these products during my childhood.

    Your article compels me to examine my relationship with paper products. I find myself asking whether it is feasible to reduce my consumption of these products without having to give them up completely. I find myself responding that it absolutely is.

  2. Eric Friedman asks the question, “How did we become so addicted to paper towels?” Part of the answer can be found in what the paper towel mean to us collectively. The paper towel is something that we use to purify our surroundings and ourselves. Even though paper towels have chlorine used on them, they obviously do not disinfect the way chlorine disinfects, and yet that is how people treat paper towels. People treat them as if they lift and remove impurities. People also treat them as if they are aseptic. I once saw a college student in a microbiology class contaminate a slide when he dabbed a paper towel on it in order to remove excess water. If we were to use rags and cloth towels instead of paper towels we first have to kill the myth that the paper towel is a purifier. This myth has a powerful ally in the advertising world that constantly reinforces that paper towels are clean, in both the literal and figurative sense. Couple that with the shame that is implied in television ads when a person picks a wimpy product over a heftier product for cleanliness and you have a tough battle for change indeed.

    • Yes, the implication is: You are your paper towel (wimpy towel = wimpy person). Guilt and shame for not choosing well.

  3. You pose the question, “How many times a day do you reach for a sheet (or two) of paper towel?” The answer, I regret to say is “too many times.” Like you, I buy my paper towels by the case load and experience an odd sense of panic when they are running low. Despite the fact I have a kitchen drawer full of cloth towels, I rarely find myself reaching for them.

    I must admit to being a little obsessed with the “hygienic” aspect of using paper towels. This is partly due to the fact cloth towels never seen quite clean enough, once they have been washed. They look dull and uninviting and seem to retain a slight odor, hence remain neatly folded in the kitchen drawer.

    Another reason for my fondness for tissue and paper towels is the fact that they were rare commodities when I was growing up. Paper products were expensive and my parents didn’t believe in waste. In fact, my father (to my deep embarrassment at the time) was known for picking tissues from the garbage can, just to show his children that they hadn’t been “used” enough to be discarded. As an adult, I have made a point of stocking boxes of tissues in every room of my house.

    I recently viewed the film you reference in your article, “Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action.” I saw the damage done to the environment and to the people who live beside the Penobscot River in Maine, due to the bleaching process involved in paper towel production. A process known to release dioxin into the river, a toxin that environmentalist Annie Leonard has called “the most toxic man made substance known to science.” I don’t believe I will be so flippant about my usage of paper products in the future, knowing how harmful their production can be to the environment.

    • Consumption as rebellion! I can remember being lectured about how many squares of toilet tissue to use (as if using too many was morally reprehensible). Lack of access to things, or control of what we buy or use, sometimes leads to distorted relations to things later on.

  4. As I look at my pristine roll of (yes, white) paper towels sitting high above the counter, I realized that my family uses paper towels for everything. We tear them off and use them as tissues or to wipe up small spots of water left on the counter – pocket-handkerchiefs and dishtowels are relics, you see them rarely. It is easier to reach for the item that sits at eye level and hear that quick pop when you tear one sheet from another.
    I think the reason why we are so enamored by paper towels is that there are so many advertisements telling us why we need their towel above the rest. There is always that test in which they show of two towels cleaning up the same spill and one falls apart while the other stays in tack. I usually scoff at those ads but in the back of my mind when I go shopping, I remember that I don’t want Brand A – I want Brand B.
    After reading this blog, it made me more conscious of the amount of times I reach for a paper towel instead of my dishtowel hanging over my faucet. I find myself reprimanding my husband for using them for insignificant uses and remind him of the items that we can clean and reuse.
    After watching Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action – your piece on paper towels again was more than just amusing words written in a blog. This film touched home to think of my “brothers and sisters” living in a society where only they care about their heritage and culture. Native American’s philosophy is never to take more from than land than you need and to give back the same. It made me want to take up the cause because their fight does not belong just to them but to all of us.
    I realize that this is just about paper towels and it is only a small part of a greater picture in which we live in, but is it really that difficult to make these changes? I would guess the first change has to start at home before it can start anywhere else.

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