Words on Paper: Tree-Free or Recycled?


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was one of the best-selling books of 2003, selling 195 million copies worldwide. In Canada alone, 915,000 copies of the weighty 768-page volume were published by Raincoast Books, using enough paper to clear a forest of 29,640 fully grown trees.

But the pages of the Canadian edition of the fifth Harry Potter book destroyed no forest at all—not even one tree. That’s because it was printed on 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper—saving not only trees but also water and energy and reducing pollution.

It was one small step for the world’s dwindling forests, one giant leap for the paper gluttons humankind has become. Each year, two billion books are printed in the United States alone, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Twenty-four billion newspapers are published, along with 359 million magazines. Though most newsprint now at least has some recycled content, less than five percent of magazine paper has any at all. As a result, the industry consumes 35 million trees each year, the Magazine PAPER Project estimates.

But when it comes to sheer excess, the publishing company can’t touch American offices. Printing and writing paper account for more than half of U.S. paper production, according to ReThink Paper, a program working to make the paper industry more sustainable; the average office worker tears through more than 700 pounds annually, Environmental Defense reports. Even though computers and other technology were supposed to herald the "paperless" office, we’re actually using nearly twice as much as we were just over two decades ago. In 1996, American office copiers spit out more than 800 billion sheets of paper, and laser printers churned out nearly as much, the Worldwatch Institute states in its report, "Paper Cuts: Recovering the Paper Landscape." Indeed, with only five percent of the world’s population, the United States consumes 30 percent of the global supply, and shows no sign of dieting any time soon.

The environmental costs of such wanton paper usage are incalculably high. Acorn Designs says that pulp mills in the United States chew through about 12,000 square miles of forest each year—a figure perhaps made even more alarming when you consider that it takes between two and 3.5 tons of trees to make a single ton of paper, according to "Paper Cuts." California’s coastal redwoods, Southern pines, temperate rainforest softwoods and boreal hardwoods are all fodder for pulp mills, and the virgin wood fiber used to make paper accounts for about 19 percent of the world’s total wood harvest. And global paper demand is projected to keep going up, says the report—from 299 million tons in 1997 to 391 million tons in 2010.

Paper: A Big Footprint

The paper industry hurts more than just trees. Logging destroys critical wildlife habitat; leaves skid trails, sending mud and rocks into waterways; requires cutting hundreds of thousands of miles of roads through forests; and contributes to erosion. Trees from plantations, which at first glance seem preferable to clearing old-growth and second-growth forests, require fertilizers and herbicide and pesticide applications because, as large-scale monocultures, they are more susceptible to disease and pest infestations. Plantations also degrade the soil and, in some parts of the world, natural forests are cleared to make way for these carefully bred, tidily planted, over-managed wastelands.

The pulp and paper industry is the fifth-largest energy consumer in the world, accounting for four percent of global energy use. It guzzles more water to produce a ton of product than any other industry, according to environmentally oriented supplier Living Tree Paper. As the paper is made, a toxic mixture of pollutants fills, and often stinks up, the air—volatile organic compounds, nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, acetone, methanol, chlorine compounds, hydrochloric and sulfuric acids, particulate matter and carbon monoxide among them—underscoring why paper mills make such lousy neighbors (and why it’s an environmental justice issue when they locate in poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods).

Thousands of substances are released into the water as well, due to the pulping and bleaching processes, including dissolved wood, chemicals and numerous other, often unidentified, compounds. "Paper Cuts" points out that these harm aquatic wildlife by diminishing oxygen levels, clouding and acidifying the water, and spreading toxic chemicals.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. The three Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle—are chief among them. And as the years go by, Americans seem to grow more conscious of the waste they produce. For example, paper was recycled at a dismal rate of five percent in 1981. But by 2003, 42 percent was recycled, according to Acorn Designs. Of course, that means a whole lot is still winding up in landfills—up to 50 percent, "Paper Cuts" reports, depending on location. (The rest is filed or used in books or other products that remain in use for longer periods of time.) Office wastepaper sees some of the most disappointing recycling rates—less than 20 percent, according to the Recycled Paper Coalition.

"The paper industry in North America has a long history of being a one-way street," said Michael Peek of New Leaf Paper, a San Francisco-based paper distributor that specializes in paper with a high post-consumer recycled content. But times are changing. Recycled, or "recovered," fibers now comprise about 38 percent of the materials used to make paper, according to "Paper Cuts." The EPA estimates that every ton of paper made from recycled materials saves about 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, 4,100 kilowatt hours of electricity, 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space and keeps 60 pounds of airborne pollutants out of the air. Buying recycled paper products—copier and writing paper, tissues and coffee filters, paperboard and packing material—"closes the loop," leaving virgin trees standing another day as pulp is used and reused multiple times.

But what if we could keep trees out of the loop altogether? Is there another, more sustainable material we could use instead? Thankfully, the answer is yes—and these materials, known collectively as non-wood, alternative, or "tree-free" fibers, are slowly becoming more available—and affordable. Tree substitutes include readily cultivated crops such as kenaf, a fast-growing annual related to cotton and okra, and industrial hemp; agricultural residues, the byproducts of harvests, which are often burned or trucked to landfills; and specialty fibers such as used denim, linen, cotton, even old currency removed from circulation. Developing countries use 97 percent of the world’s non-wood pulp, with China alone consuming 83 percent (mostly in the form of straw), "Paper Cuts" reports. Only about seven percent of the total paper fiber supply worldwide is non-wood, however; in the United States, such alternative fibers contribute less than one percent of the total. While the dent these products are making on the market is still small, they are winning over converts, and even attracting corporations whose clout can make a difference—for instance, Vision Paper of Albuquerque, which manufactures kenaf paper, counts Disney, Texas Instruments and Motorola among its clients.

Non-wood paper remains somewhat controvers

ial, however (see sidebar), because some environmental critics contend that it competes with recycled paper in the marketplace. Much of the political activism over paper is aimed at convincing large suppliers (including Staples and Office Depot) to include more recycled content in their office papers.

Another issue ecologically minded paper shoppers might consider is paper whiteness—that is, what makes our white paper white. The answer, much of the time, is chlorine bleaching. The byproducts of this toxic process pollute the water with dioxins, which can accumulate in animal tissues, endangering predators at the top of the food chain, including humans. The EPA has classified dioxins as "likely human carcinogens" that can also suppress the immune system and harm reproduction and development. Because many environmentally conscious paper manufacturers believe safer bleaching methods are as important as using recycled or non-wood pulp, chlorine-free papers are gaining in market share, especially in Europe.

Alternative Fibers

As any social studies pupil knows, paper has its origins in ancient Egypt, where papyrus was harvested, layered and pounded together to make flat sheets suitable for writing—a huge improvement over the heavy, bulky stone and clay tablets that had been in use. What we recognize today as paper wasn’t invented for another 3,000 years, in roughly 105 AD, when a Chinese man named Ts"ai Lun took the inner bark of a mulberry tree and bamboo fibers, mixed them with water, pounded and poured and flattened, and voila!—paper. Other early ingredients included hemp, old rags and even used fishing nets. By the 10th century, Arabians were substituting linen fibers for wood and bamboo to produce a finer sheet.

Until the 1800s, agricultural fibers and rags collected from households were the mainstay of Western paper production. But as rags became scarce, American paper makers began to experiment with alternative materials, like tree bark, sugar cane waste, straw, cornstalks and wood. For its abundance—not necessarily for its superior product—wood was the clear winner. With its endless forests, it seemed North America would never run out of trees. An entire industry grew up around the new wood-pulping technology, swallowing up whole forests in its wake throughout much of the industrialized world. Only countries with few trees, such as Japan, escaped the wood paper juggernaut, and to this day continue to make much of paper out of fast-growing crops and other, more easily renewable resources. According to the United Nations, as much as one-third of the paper produced in developing nations is tree-free; in China and India, it’s more than half.

That not-so-ancient technology is just beginning to make a comeback in the United States and other industrialized nations. Kenaf, hemp and agricultural residues are just a few of the alternative fibers getting a second look from environmentalists and paper manufacturers alike. Kenaf, a member of the hibiscus family from Asia and Africa, has been used for thousands of years to make rope, sacking and rugs. In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture in its search for new pulp fibers found kenaf to be the most viable replacement for trees in paper-making. Maturing in five months at a height of 12 to 18 feet, kenaf yields six to 10 tons of dry fiber per acre, a yield up to five times greater than Southern pine, the paper industry’s standby, ReThink Paper reports. Cultivated in the southern United States, it grows so rapidly it crowds out weeds, making herbicides unnecessary; and because paper is made from the stalk, insecticides aren’t needed to protect the fruit or flower. It has less lignin (a binder and cell-wall strengthener) than wood, making it more energy-efficient to pulp. And on the printing press, it performs the same, "just like running a virgin tree," said Brandon Davis of Vision Paper, which is building the country’s first kenaf pulp mill on the East Coast so it can undercut the price of tree-based pulp. Davis argues that kenaf will one day replace trees in paper-making, and believes it should be promoted over all other alternatives, including recycled paper.

Another viable paper-making crop is much-maligned industrial hemp, the non-narcotic relative of marijuana that for centuries has been used to produce clothing, rope, sails, canvas and paper. U.S. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew crops of this hardy, fast-growing crop. But in the 1930s, as "reefer madness" swept the country, hemp cultivation was banned despite the plant’s negligible content of marijuana’s active ingredient, THC. The prohibition was temporarily lifted in 1942 to address a war-time fiber shortage, and the government urged farmers to grow "Hemp for Victory" to make shoelaces, parachutes and marine rigging. But the ban was reinstated at the war’s end.

Today, U.S. companies offering hemp paper must import the crop from Canada or Europe. Opponents of this policy are not on the radical fringe of society. In addition to countless advocacy groups urging hemp’s legalization, the states of Minnesota, North Dakota and Hawaii have legalized its cultivation; Vermont’s legislature has urged Congress and federal agencies to authorize the commercial development of industrial hemp; and the American Farm Bureau has passed a resolution supporting hemp reintroduction. But until the federal government comes around to hemp’s overwhelming benefits, progressive paper manufacturers will be forced to import the raw material—and hemp paper prices will remain high.

But there is no need to wait for the legalization of hemp, or the widespread acceptance of kenaf, to reduce our dependence on trees for paper. Instead, we could follow the lead of developing countries, which utilize the wastes and byproducts of their agricultural systems to manufacture a product of similar quality to its tree-based counterpart. "Ag-residues" are the materials left over after agricultural crops have been harvested for their intended purpose and include cereal straws such as wheat, rice, barley and oats; seed grass straws like flax and rye; crushed stalks of sugarcane known as "bagasse"; sorghum and corn stalks; and cotton "linters," the short fibers that stick to cotton seeds after ginning.

According to ReThink Paper, a major proponent of ag-residues, these "co-products of food production" are similar in cellulose but lower in lignin than wood, making them easier and cheaper to pulp. And there are lots of them, too: according to Fiber Futures, there are 250 million tons of ag-residues suitable for paper-making produced each year in the United States alone. Turning ag-residues into paper is a cheaper and more environmental alternative to burning or land-filling them, the current choices for American farmers trying to get rid of millions of tons of their crops" byproducts.

Legislation increasingly limits or prohibits the burning of agricultural wastes, a practice that pollutes the air with particulates and other emissions, giving farmers further incentive to back the use of this bulky byproduct in paper. And they already have shown their support for such an initiative: in 1996, a coalition of farmers, environmentalists, manufacturers and newspaper publishers did successful trial runs of newsprint containing 20 percent ag-residues, mostly wheat, rice and rye straw from farms in California and Oregon.

But ag-residues do have some drawbacks. Some straws have a high silica content, causing technical difficulties and requiring expensive c

hemical recovery. If appropriate recovery systems are not in place, pulping can be even more polluting than virgin wood. Because they are less dense than wood and are typically harvested only once a year, handling, transportation and storage costs limit practical production. One exception is bagasse, which can be supplied in larger quantities directly from sugar mills. In India, China, Taiwan, Mexico and other Latin American countries, large-scale mills produce as much as 300 tons of bagasse per day. However, sugar mills burn the crushed stalks for steam and power; taking the bagasse for paper production would require sugar mills to turn to fossil fuels for a power source. As ReThink Paper points out, these downsides must be balanced against the cost of depleting a finite natural resource.

The major thing stopping any of these alternative fibers from competing successfully with trees is economics. Paper companies have huge investments in forests, and built-in incentives to keep using wood as a raw material. The laws of supply and demand keep prices high, as does the more limited availability and distribution of raw material. As long as non-wood papers cost more than virgin timber paper—sometimes as much as three times more—most consumers will resist the new product.

Other problems exist as well. Brandon Davis of Vision Paper says not many tree-free papers are appropriate for manufacture on a large scale due to "printability and recycling issues." Bad memories hurt them too—the first 100-percent kenaf papers were spongy and jammed machines. ReThink Paper names another culprit: government subsidies. The organization charges that logging subsidies keep the price of wood artificially low, tilting the playing field against alternative fibers.

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