Sustainability is a good thing. There’s no reason to be callously burning through resources just because we can. However, the push for something new can taint the idea and sometimes create the opposite result than was intended. So while I am thrilled at any good program for making better use of our resources, let’s take a quick look to make sure that we’re really getting what we think we are. For the purposes of a single article (and because we print most of our work on it), we’re going to take a look at sustainability and paper:
I probably don’t have to tell you that paper comes from trees. Trees take a long time to grow, and produce oxygen, generally being cool to their immediate surroundings and the world at large. Unless it’s dropping a bunch of seeds into your pool, it’s tough to be down on a tree. What may come as a surprise is that these majestic forests that we want to preserve for posterity are generally not the source for paper pulp.
Pulp is generally derived from smaller, softer trees of the fir and spruce variety, and the people that make paper have a vested interest in having a supply of trees, and in having them close at hand. So guess what? Paper trees are a crop. According to the US Forest Service, the wood and paper industry plants an average of 1.7 million trees PER DAY in the united states. . That’s nearly half of all planting going on today. These trees are grown using advanced farming techniques that brings them to maturity in just 6-7 years, making the investment more than worthwhile.
You see, nobody worries that our children will not know the grandeur of a cornfield in the Midwest, because there’s an assumption that more corn will be planted (there’s probably also an assumption that their children wouldn’t be that interested). But now trees are just like this. Because we know we need more, we’re planting more, and we’re doing it in convenient places for production, eliminating long trucking routes and preserving larger natural forests for future generations.
Ok, so given that we at least have a sustainable source of trees, but that still doesn’t stop the carbon footprint of mill production, and doesn’t stop paper from filling landfills with information that people only needed once. Why use it if it’s still so wasteful?
This is where reduction and recycling come in, and many substitutions don’t work as well as one might think. Paper is one of the most easily recycled products out there, and in a properly managed chain can be used 5-7 times before there’s just nothing left to work with. In fact, in 2011, over 64% of paper consumed in the US was recovered for recycling. Comparing this to other commonly recycled materials, in the same year the recovery rates were only 35% for metal, 28% for glass, and a dismal 8% for plastic. So the electronic device that is saving you the use of so much paper? Most of it will be in a landfill long after the paper it replaced has already been re-used several times and biodegraded back into some nice potting soil or something. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a Smartphone and there are things that they are very good for. I’m not suggesting that we Amish it up in here. the domain . Let’s just be realistic about their ability (or lack thereof) to save the environment.
Less paper would seem to mean more trees, and thus a cleaner environment, right? Sounds about right, until you consider all those trees that I referenced earlier. You see, all those trees require a lot of land. Right now that land is being used for managed forests, and forestland is actually growing. But it’s getting used this way because there is a plan to make things from these trees (and plant new ones again).
Back to Econ 101, what happens when there is too much supply and not enough demand for something? Prices fall in order for the market to equalize. So let’s say I’m a company that owns a whole bunch of land, and I’ve chosen to invest in managing a forest because I know that in several years I’ll be able to begin an annual harvest and produce pulp products which I can sell into the market. Right now everybody is winning, especially the nice clean air in the immediate region and all of the cute little critters living in my managed forest. But what if paper prices fall, and pulp prices follow? Managed forests are no longer a good investment. Now what? Condos? Shopping centers? An amusement park? Commercial development starts looking better. I don’t have to stretch this example too far to see where a drastic reduction in use (and therefore price) of paper could lead to less planting and cultivation of forests. See how you killed Bambi just now? It might be time to sit in your shame closet and think about what you’ve done.
In all seriousness, we need to be responsible with our resources. There are lots of them and the effects of our actions now will likely not be felt for generations, just like we are currently feeling the effects of actions taken generations ago. A moderated approach with realistic understanding of the actual cost of both our consumption and our preservation will lead to better conditions both now and in the future.