Tuesday, 16 Sep 2003


After an absolutely awful travel day yesterday, I’m down in Asheville, N.C., with NRDC colleagues and grassroots partners meeting to figure out how we can stop the biologically outstanding Cumberland Plateau in the southern Appalachian Mountains from being turned into toilet paper.

Last night we all sat down for a tapas dinner at Zambras, one of my favorite Asheville haunts, and recounted paper-industry forest-destruction horror stories and how non-sustainable logging is damaging animal life along with the spiritual and economic life of historic southeastern American cultures.

Ceilo Sands, the Dogwood Alliance‘s ForestWatch program director, said to me, “Allen, these impacts are the true cost of paper, but no one knows about them.”

“Read my Grist diary tomorrow and I’ll list them,” I told him.

So here are a few facts about the true costs of virgin timber paper production:

While virtually all industries harm the environment in one way or another, the pulp and paper industry may contribute to more global and local environmental problems than any other industry in the world. Perhaps no industry has forced more species into extinction, destroyed more habitats, and polluted as many streams, rivers, and lakes. When it comes to the ecological effects of the paper industry, the world simply cannot afford to experience another century like the one we have just lived through.

The paper industry is the single largest consumer of fresh water, responsible for 11 percent of the total volume of water used in industrial activities in OECD countries. Being a forest-products industry, it is directly responsible for accelerating global deforestation trends. When it destroys trees and uproots soil (the earth’s natural carbon “sinks”), the industry accelerates adverse climate change by causing enormous emissions of greenhouse gases. Indeed, the pulp and paper industry is the third greatest industrial greenhouse gas emitter (among stationary sources), after the chemical and steel industries. Its carbon dioxide emissions are projected to increase by roughly 100 percent by 2020.

The virgin pulp and paper industry is among the world’s largest generators of toxic air pollutants, surface water pollution, sludge, and solid wastes. Processing rigid stands of timber into flexible, printable, smooth, glossy, or absorbent paper requires an intensive chemical and mechanical effort after a tree is harvested. And to obtain the timber, forest habitat is fragmented by roads and logging. According to recent research in conservation biology, habitat fragmentation is even more ecologically devastating than we thought.

Of the wood harvested globally for industrial uses (everything but fuel wood), 42 percent goes to paper production, a proportion expected to grow by more than half in the next 50 years. If current trends continue, only 5 percent of all tropical forests will remain by mid-century. Currently less than 20 percent of the world’s original forest cover remains intact, and much of what does remain is threatened by commercial logging. Most of the world’s paper supply, about 71 percent, is not made from timber harvested at tree farms but from forest-harvested timber, from regions with ecologically valuable, biologically diverse habitat. Still, there is nothing to love about tree plantations, which host about 90 percent fewer species than the natural forests that preceded them.

Forests in the southeastern United States — among the most biologically important and species-rich on the planet — supply 25 percent of the world’s paper. In the past decade there has been a 500 percent increase in wood harvested by paper companies in the southeastern U.S.

Adding urgency to our need to reverse the deforestation problem caused by paper demand is the fact that increasing amounts of the wood harvested for industrial use are coming from some of the most biologically rich developing countries. In the past 20 years, 80 percent of global timber harvesting has taken place in developing countries hosting sub-tropical and tropical forests between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. This area, known to conservation biologists as the latitudinal diversity gradient, hosts the world’s densest concentrations of species per acre. For evolutionary reasons, the concentration and diversity of species increase the closer they are to the equator. Unfortunately, logging has been increasing rapidly within the latitudinal diversity gradient, with the result that ever-greater numbers of species per acre of logging are being displaced or destroyed.

What are the downstream effects of all this? A serious one is paper waste. It would be hard to overstate the burden on the budgets of municipal governments from waste management. During the past two decades, literally every OECD country and most developing nations have been struggling with the economic costs, logistical burdens, community squabbles, and dangerous health effects of having to manage billions of tons of municipal waste. Government advisory boards, regulatory reviews, research and legislative initiatives designed to encourage the safe and economical management of municipal wastes have been advanced in the private sector and at every level of government — local, provincial, national, and, even international. As the single largest product category found in household and commercial rubbish, paper is responsible for more economic and public health burdens than any other commodity in the municipal waste stream.

Thus, products manufactured by the pulp and paper industry generate adverse air pollution, hazardous and non-hazardous wastes, water pollution, soil contamination, and climate change effects at virtually every stage of their life cycle. This is because more than 90 percent of the printing and office paper manufactured in the U.S. and Canada, and 70 percent of all newsprint, is made completely from virgin content, with no environmentally sustainable attributes whatsoever.

What is to be done?

One of the strategies for reducing demand on forests has been to encourage consumers to minimize paper use and, if they must buy paper, to buy paper with environmentally sustainable characteristics in order to encourage the paper industry to shift to more sustainable production systems.

The U.S. — indeed the planet — cannot afford to lose the potential for converting the paper industry to environmentally sustainable processes. Environmental organizations’ focus and power is critical to leading that change and there is much that can be done to build market demand for environmentally preferable papers.

Based on our assessment of the many forest protection strategies previously employed in the southeast by NGOs and government, my colleagues and I at NRDC and at the Dogwood Alliance, working in collaboration with many other environmental and consumer groups throughout the world, believe that a multi-year, multi-stakeholder initiative designed to encourage a shift in paper consumption and production patterns away from endangered forests represents a new and viable solution to the growing problem of habitat depletion in that region. To that end, NRDC and our regional partners, including the Dogwood Alliance in the southeastern United States and Greenpeace in Canada, are focusing substantial resources on identifying the threats caused by large-scale consumers and the timber acquisition related to satisfying demand for paper.

Our objective is to shift large-scale consumption patterns in order to remedy many of the environmental problems caused by the paper industry. By communicating with large consumers of toilet paper, newsprint, and other types of papers, and by putting pressure on paper companies that obtain their raw materials from outstanding southeastern forests, as well as northern Canadian forests, NRDC’s advocacy work related to the paper industry is directed toward: 1) reducing the overwhelming reliance by consumers and paper-manufacturing companies on virgin-timber-based fibers obtained from biologically essential and irreplaceable ecosystems; 2) reversing the costly and ecologically ignorant practice of wasting valuable paper products in landfills and incinerators; and 3) reducing the many impacts of paper mills, whether they rely on virgin or recycled fibers.