Todd Paglia is the founder and director of The Paper Campaign at ForestEthics. When not working to protect forests, he’s often found on his road bike, far off in the distance.

Monday, 6 May 2002

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

It’s all around you. Right now as you read this it is probably covering your desk, bulging out of your file folders, encircling your coffee, creeping out of the fax machine, lurking in the photocopier’s innards, towering over you on the bookcase. It’s paper. And it is so ubiquitous we hardly notice it — but the environmental costs are extreme. Paper has become a little like hamburger: a high-volume business running on very tight margins. As a result, the producers will go to extremes to find cheap production materials from almost anywhere in the world. And the companies that sell the final product, like Staples, will do just about anything to make a buck.

That fascinating inter-office memo that has been on your desk for three weeks may have fiber from pesticide- and herbicide-laden plantations, from natural forests in the southern U.S., from your favorite national forest, from old growth trees in the Canadian boreal, or from the ancient forests of Indonesia. What it probably doesn’t have much of is recycled fiber. Although many people believe that the whole recycled paper thing was taken care of in the 1970s, in reality over 90 percent of paper made in the United States is from virgin tree fiber.

And don’t even get me started about the chemical and energy costs of paper. The paper industry is the second-largest industrial energy user in the U.S., and just the tons of bleaching agents used daily to make toilet paper a crisp Arctic white (does this seem strange to anyone else?) is staggering. Then there are the landfills where so much of this paper ends up. And the incredible experiment going on with genetically modified trees. Can I stop now?

All of which is why we, along with our partner organization The Dogwood Alliance and dozens of incredible allies, started The Paper Campaign. Our goal is to shift the U.S. market away from paper made from destroyed forests and toward recycled and alternative sources. Talk about job security, right? This is obviously a long-term campaign.

The young radical.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning. That picture right there is of me, back when I was just an innocent little toddler growing up in upstate New York. The forest was my playground, where I hiked, hunted, fished, built lean-tos, explored, got lost, and found myself. As I grew up I saw the forest change, witnessed it literally disappear in some areas. This seemed pretty extreme to me — mowing down whole landscapes, destroying critical habitat, ruining rivers and streams, and leaving a massive scar on the land. So I went to work on the environment. And every day I go to work, I go back to the forests of my youth. Of course our office (in an alley in San Francisco’s Mission District) is not quite as picturesque, but you see what I’m saying.

You can imagine my surprise when I found out I was a radical. See, I don’t look terribly radical. I don’t even feel radical. Yet this is what the logging companies would have people believe. “Those damn radical environmentalists!” they scream. So here is my “extremist” platform: Let’s leave some trees standing. Industry sycophants are constantly saying that trees need to be cut in order to ensure forest health. Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but the forests seemed to do just fine for thousands of years without our “help.” We’ve already lost 95 percent of the old growth in the U.S.; do we have to compromise on the last 5 percent? Worldwide, almost 80 percent of all old-growth is gone. Let’s preserve some key natural areas, shift toward recycled paper, and improve logging practices. Sounds pretty conservative, right?

This is one on my mini-campaigns: to take the words “extremist” and “radical” back and put them right where they belong, firmly attached to Staples, International Paper, Georgia Pacific, George W. Bush, the U.S. Forest Service, and anyone else that advocates the alteration of whole landscapes to make cheap paper with public subsidies and environmental costs that will be passed on to our kids.