From Earl Shorris,  A Nation of Salesmen

The Paper Chase

The paperless office is still a distant dream. In the interim, we should be recycling more and developing alternatives to wood-based paper.

By Jim Motavalli

While many futurists predicted that we?d be enjoying the paperless office around this time, Americans are still at the epicenter of a paper blizzard. Were you under the impression that the electronic age would free us from all that? According to The Myth of the Paperless Office, a company?s use of e-mail causes an average 40 percent increase in paper consumption.

The demand for ream after ream of white paper is putting a huge strain not only on America?s forests, but the world?s. And it?s forcing the environmental movement to consider the alternatives.

The U.S. currently gobbles up some 200 million tons of wood products annually, with consumption increasing by four percent every year. The pulp and paper industry is the biggest culprit. U.S. paper producers alone consume one billion trees?or 12,430 square miles of forests?every year, while producing 735 pounds of paper for every American.

The U.S. has less than five percent of the world?s population, but consumes 30 percent of the world?s paper. Only five percent of America?s virgin forests remain, while 70 percent of the fiber consumed by the pulp and paper industry continues to be generated from virgin wood. While logging controversies most often center around the Pacific Northwest, most of the wood pulp used for paper in the U.S. actually comes from southern forests, currently home to some of the greatest biodiversity in the continental U.S. (see sidebar).

Worldwide, global consumption of wood products has risen 64 percent since 1961. The industry expects that demand will double by 2050, keeping pace with population growth. Recycling has helped, but has not yet made an appreciable difference. ?Recycling has yet to dent the world?s appetite for virgin-fiber pulp,? says the Worldwatch Institute.

In Indonesia, the pulp and paper industry is destroying rainforest so quickly that it will run out of wood by 2007, according to a report by Friends of the Earth. An area the size of Belgium is wiped out annually. Only 10 percent of the trees cut down for paper in Indonesia are farmed, although the industry had supposedly committed to replanting its clear-cuts with fast-growing acacia trees.

Globally, pulp for paper and other uses is taking an increasing share of all wood production, from 40 percent in 1998 to nearly 60 percent over the next 50 years. In the same time span, easily accessible and inexpensive sources of wood are disappearing. Because of the rapid consumption of virgin forests in places as far apart as Canada and Southeast Asia, forest restoration has not been able to keep pace with the demand for wood products.

Toxic Pollution and Waste

Loss of forests isn?t the only issue. Deforestation has released an estimated 120 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the major global warming gas, into the atmosphere. The pulp and paper industry is the third-largest industrial polluter in both Canada and the U.S., releasing more than 220 million pounds of toxic pollution into the air, ground and water each year.

Much of that pollution is the byproduct of the three million tons of chlorine used annually to bleach wood pulp white. Chlorine bleaching is a major source of the potent carcinogen dioxin, which is routinely discharged into rivers and streams with wastewater. As a result, dioxin is now ubiquitous in our environment, found throughout the world in air, water, soil and food. Every woman alive today carries some trace of dioxin in her breast milk. Dioxin is considered one of the most toxic substances ever produced, and has been known to cause cancer, liver failure, miscarriage, birth defects and genetic damage in laboratory animals.

The U.S. paper industry has been aware of the dioxin problem since at least 1985, but has been very slow to act on alternatives (see sidebar). In Europe, chlorine bleaching is being phased out. That has only been proposed in the U.S., despite the fact that the American Public Health Association strongly supports a phase-out. In Sweden, pulp mills have to meet stringent standards, and were required to reduce chlorine content by 90 percent as early as 1993. When they have to, American companies such as Proctor and Gamble can go virtually chlorine-free: The Pampers exported to Sweden, for example, are made without a chlorine-bleaching process, unlike those wrapping U.S. babies.

Paper is also the dominant material in solid waste. And in the United States, paper-producing companies are the third-largest energy consumer, with a pace that keeps quickening.

It’s not surprising that, given all these environmental negatives, the paper industry would wrap itself in a green mantle. International Paper, for instance, issued a Sustainability Report in 2002 that cites its role as among the largest owners of sustainably managed private forestland in the world. Its raw material is trees, the report says, the world’s greatest renewable resource.? It participates in forest certification programs and voluntary partnerships and strictly adheres to environmental regulations. And according to the American Forest and Paper Association, U.S. papermakers recycle enough paper every day to fill a 15-mile-long train of boxcars. Since 1990, the recovered paper would fill 200 football stadiums to a height of 100 feet.

While some of this is undoubtedly greenwashing, Michael Klein, a spokesperson for the American Forest and Paper Association, asserts that the industry is currently using all the recycled paper it can get. ?I have a problem with activists who say we have to demand more recycled content,? Klein says. ?Instead, they should demand that people recycle more. One hundred percent of the paper and boxed fiberboard people put on the curb is used. Paper activists point out, however, that a significant amount of U.S.-generated recyclable paper is actually exported. Nearly a quarter of the recovered paper in the U.S. is shipped to Mexico, Canada, Asia and Europe rather than being recycled here, reports Conservatree.

Tree-Free Paper: Great Expectations

There is vast potential for a “green” paper industry, including recycled and natural fibers, that could not only spare trees but also produce paper with minimal environmental impact overall, but it needs an infusion of both public interest and research funding. It is presently, at best, a $20 million sales niche in a $230 billion U.S. industry, asserts the San Francisco-based Fiber Futures, which lobbies for expanded use of agricultural residues and other tree-free materials for paper.

A plan by the Natural Resources Defense Council to open a paper recycling plant in the Bronx, New York ended tragically because of labor
opposition and last-minute political maneuvering, which thwarted financing. Many small and medium-sized paper mills that handled tree-free papers have closed because of industry consolidation and the economic downturn, sending many paper manufacturers overseas for sources