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Save Trees - Use Paper: The Facts

Jul 15, 2008
Thrown away or ripped up a piece of paper lately? Printed or photocopied one too many copies? Had some snide and smug colleague say "you're killing the rainforest!" Thought that they might be right and you should stop using so much paper and maybe buy a Sting album. Well, don't. Both of them are nonsense.

There is of course an element of truth in the above remark, in the same way that if you stop breathing then there will be (slightly) more air to go around. The basis of this greatly over-used maxim really treats that trees are cut down to make paper, which is correct, for a given value of both "trees" and "correct."

Paper, in its many guises, from that which you might reach for to blow your nose on when you have a cold, to your daily newspaper, the vast and varied wallpaper available at your local B & Q, to the cardboard box that your new 42 inch plasma screen HD ready television arrived in, to the microwaveable box that holds your oven ready evening meal that you have to partake of because you spent so long reading the instructions that came with the new TV, that you haven't time to cook any more.

Paper is all around us, and in everyday use, sometimes without realising it (what do you think of the woodgrain effect on your office desk or laminated flooring? It's printed on paper which is then bonded to a wood substitute to look like the real thing) or simply taken for granted. Virtually all paper is made from naturally occurring cellulose fibres (linear polysaccharide of beta (1-4) linked D-glucose units, typified by the chemical symbol C6H10O5 -n for the scientifically minded) and the greatest source of this material around the globe is naturally occurring wood, i.e. trees. Oh dear, already some readers are beginning to get steamed-up with images in their minds of the destruction of the tropical rain forest, but please, stay with me.

The second most important source of theses cellulose fibres is recycled waste paper and board, which can be anything from yesterdays newspapers (no longer permitted for the wrapping of fish and chips) and that cardboard box that your 42inch plasma T.V. came in. Also there are the trade waste sources of recyclable paper and board, e.g. waste from printing companies, over-issue newspapers and magazines; plus there's the endless barrage of junk mail that daily falls through you letterbox, which you put to one side for recycling, along with your empty wine bottles, baked bean cans and lager cans (aluminium).

There are many other naturally occurring sources of cellulose fibre across the globe, but their usage is dependant on locality, end-product, and guaranteed availability. So for the sake of this article, let us go back to the most general source, wood, or better yet, trees. Trees grow on virtually every continent on Earth (except Antarctica), and are of many and varied types. Of course, in The West, if you are doing one of those word association tests and the psychiatrist says "tree" you might think of a majestic Oak, or a Horse Chestnut, or a Willow dangling its branches into the slowly drifting, crystal-clear waters of a country stream. Maybe even a pine tree, the Larch, the mighty Scots Pine.

If however your inquisitor was to say "tree for making paper" in our metaphorical word association test, your mind will conjure-up those images of huge bulldozers ripping trees from the tropical forest, to the sound of huge chain-saws and their horrid rise and fall burring, drowning-out the shrieks of the displaced Gibbons and Orang-Utans, basically, the rape of Sumatra (ten years ago it would have been Amazonia but the focus has shifted though the problem in South America remains and, if anything, has worsened)

As far as making paper and board are concerned, the vast majority of trees ripped from the tropical rain forest are of little or no use for papermaking. They are hardwoods, harder even than Birch, Beech, even Eucalyptus, which (along with a few others) are what papermakers think of as hard woods. Tropical hardwoods, such as Mahogany, Walnut, Teak, Ipe, etc. are too hard, and can be up to 120 years old in those visions you have in mind, and to get that old they have grown relatively slowly and their cellulose fibres are short and very densely packed, which is what makes them hard woods. This is ideal for furniture, wall panelling, real wooden parquet floors, and many other uses where quite often a non-tropical hardwood timber would do just as well, but hey, these tropical forest trees are just there, waiting to be ripped out of the ground or hacked down, anyway.

Trees used in papermaking are from the temperate regions of the globe, though there are pine and eucalyptus plantations in South America where once stood tropical rain forest, but it was destroyed for timber, or farming land for cattle rearing (so where did you think your Fray Bentos corned beef came from? Fray Bentos is a place, not just another trade name) or cash crops, all of which failed after a year or two because the soil is basically so poor (think of the roots of tropical trees that are so near the surface and spread over such a vast area), the rains came and washed away what little soil there was, and areas the size of Wales (slightly bigger than Whales) each year looked like turning into desert.

Then some Sylviculturalists (Tree Scientists) came along and said "Why don't we plant trees there that we can use, crop within just ten years or so, replant, and crop again, and so on?" That way the soil gets enriched, we get trees for timber and papermaking, and a degree of habitat restoration is achieved. Plus, for every so many farmed trees that have a relatively short cropping cycle, we will also plant X many tropical hardwood trees, and even create 'islands' of such trees and 'tree highways' between them so the wildlife can resettle. And this is the funny part, these tree lovers were not from WWF, Friends of the Earth, or Greenpeace (they were all too busy wringing their hands and weeping bitter tears rather than putting forward recovery plans), these radical scientists were from pulp and paper companies!

It worked too. Aside from the illegal logging that still goes on regardless in South America, dependant on whether the country in question is run by a questionable government, or whether or not the native Indians have shot the loggers first, aside from that, 'tree farming', inspected, approved and labelled by people like FSC, PEFC or SFI, is an environmentally and financially rewarding enterprise in South America.

In the Far East (Indonesia, Malaysia, Borneo et al) the destruction of the rain forest and all the unbearable habitat and environmental problems that it brings, has nothing to do with the pulp and paper industry, although there is a question mark over that word 'nothing.' Asia has a burgeoning population, a growing economy, and a huge demand for paper products. While most pulp and paper companies from that part of the World do not commission the felling of tropical forest, they do buy the wood from so-called middle-men, and thus they can be said to have "sap on their hands" if not blood.

We in The West, though, are equally to blame because we continue to buy paper and goods made from paper and board that originates in these places (especially Indonesia), and, thinking back to the cattle ranches that replaced the Amazon Rainforest, look for something called Palm Oil in the ingredients/contents of the products you buy each week at your local supermarket. Much of the areas denuded of tropical (hardwood) rainforest are being replanted with relatively fast growing palm trees, for the sake of the oil that is extracted from the fruit.

So next time someone tells you you're killing trees when you hurl a crumpled piece of paper in the bin you can stop worrying and just ensure that you only buy paper and paper products (and likewise timber and timber products) that carry the FSC, PEFC, or SFI logos. Oh, and leave the Sting albums alone.
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