The Alkaline Paper Advocate

Volume 4, Number 5
Nov 1991

Recycling & Environmental Issues

It stands to reason that recycling must save some trees-but how many? And which trees--those in virgin forests or the ones in tree plantations, or both? Why do paper companies want to cut down virgin forests, and why do environmentalists oppose them? Is there really a wood pulp shortage? If answers to these questions exist-answers that would satisfy a thoughtful person-they are not easy to find. Yet relevant facts are available here and there, and if they can be assembled to provide a meaningful background of information, they can make it easier to understand the positions taken by disputants in the controversies now being aired in the media.

It is not well known outside the paper industry that a great deal of wood-fiber paper is made without having to cut down any trees at all. The pulp is manufactured from lumber and sawmill residues. The proportion varies with geographical area, but it is highest in the mountain and pacific states, where pulp mills get over 80% of their fiber from these residues. The national average is 30%. If you consider that about a quarter of all paper and board is made from recycled fiber to start with, this means that only half of all paper and board in this country is made directly from trees. This information comes from the American Paper Institute, "API 1990, Fiber Sources for Paper/Paperboard/ Wood Pulp Manufacture," p. 25; and from PIMA Magazine, Oct. 1990, p. 22.1

Are we using up our trees? This question is not as simple as it seems, for several reasons. Because our population is growing and the economy is expanding (over the long term, anyhow), trees will be used at a faster rate in the future than they are now, which means that more of them have to be planted now, to supply tomorrow's needs. How do we know when we are providing adequately for the future? Perhaps it is impossible to know for sure, but when the provision seems adequate, all things considered, this is called sustainable yield.

All major factors in production and use of trees have to be taken into account. Pulping methods will grow more efficient over time; we will use faster-growing trees, and import/export patterns will change. George Petty, CEO of Repap Enterprises, said in a recent speech (reported in the September Tappi Journal, p. 249) that forest growth in North America is 30-35% greater than annual removals, but his unit of measurement (number of trees, tons of fiber or something else) is not made clear, and the report does not say whether 30-35% will be enough to take care of future consumption.

Is there a pulp shortage? Probably. It seems reasonable to expect the price of any commodity or product to go up whenever the supply shrinks, and to go down whenever there is an oversupply, in the long run, other things being equal. Over the last few decades, the price of pulp has been rising steeply (and, incidentally, providing papermakers with a good motive for going alkaline, so that they can substitute calcium carbonate filler for some of that expensive fiber). Such a long-term price trend seems to be good evidence of a pulp or tree shortage. Economic downturns, on the other hand, depress prices at least temporarily. World pulp prices recently dropped 25%, according to the "Report from Southern Africa" in the July Tappi Journal.

On its 10th anniversary recently, the journal Paper Southern Africa looked forward to the next decade. E.J. Smith reviewed measures that might alleviate the shortage of pulpwood in South Africa and compensate for increasing pulpwood costs: 1) using more forest residues (tree tops, etc.), 2) using more efficient logging and chipping equipment, 3) using high yield pulp processes such as CTMP, 4) biopulping and biobleaching, 5) reducing transportation cost of pulpwood, and 6) speeding up afforestation with faster growing trees, especially eucalyptus trees. Judging from the literature, these measures are being used in other countries too.

Boise Cascade's vice president of timberland resources is quoted in the September American Papermaker as saying that woodchips are a fiber source that is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive. Boise Cascade is planting 750,000 fast-growing cottonwood seedlings on its tree farm near Wallula, Washington, to increase its supply of wood fiber, and expects to harvest them six years from now, when they reach a height of 60 feet. Other plantations in the area are planned. (By contrast, it takes not six but 70 to 100 years for most tree species to mature in northwestern Ontario, according to a Canadian Pacific Forest Products policy statement, so local conditions have to be taken into consideration whenever time to harvest is a factor in a calculation.)

The first American tree farm was established in 1941 by Weyerhaeuser Co. near Grays Harbor, Washington, according to a historical review in the January PIMA Magazine.

According to the 1991 State of the World, an annual report by the Worldwatch Institute, tree plantations are coming online all over the world. They can yield up to 10 times as much as natural stands annually. Apparently plantations are still not being used everywhere they could be, though: in British Columbia in 1989, harvesting exceeded sustained yield by 30%, and in the 12 national forests in the Pacific Northwest, harvesting exceeded sustained yield by 61% (p. 78). The federal government began in 1988 to contract with private nonindustrial land-owners (who raise 50% of all the trees in this country) to plant and manage more trees (p. 92). Presumably this will result in more sustainable yields.

By far the largest portion of the wood harvest, in the U.S. and elsewhere, is used for construction of new housing (p. 85). A quarter of it is used to make paper and board.

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