It's time we rethink environmentalism, recyclingBy Cruise Hall | 04/06/2014 11:00pm
Paper comes from trees, trees come from forests and forests eat carbon dioxide. It is with this logic that environmental crusaders wage war on the pulpwood industry and recycling evangelists preach the good news of post-consumer paper. They are, however, a detriment to their own cause, for the logic behind the hype is fundamentally flawed.
It is true that paper is made of trees and the demand for paper is so great that naturally occurring forests could never sustain the demand for pulpwood. If paper production was linked to deforestation, though, we would have toppled Mother Earth’s last forest long ago. Fortunately, pulpwood harvesting does not drive deforestation.
In fact, paper trees don’t come from forests at all. Paper trees come from pulpwood farms. And like any other agricultural product, when one tree is cut, another is immediately sown in its place. In light of this sustainable business model, we cannot treat trees like a nonrenewable natural resource.
Pulpwood farms are actually entirely renewable and hardly natural. As far as paper companies are concerned, the tree is merely a refinery that converts a natural resource, carbon dioxide, into a useful product, paper. As such, the industry has adopted an array of forest management practices that maximize the photosynthetic capacity of pulpwood farms and ensure their long-term sustainability. So when it comes to greenhouse gas reduction, an acre of pulpwood land is far more effective than an acre of natural forest.
The paper industry, it turns out, is nothing more than a solar-powered carbon-capturing service. Indeed, per the respective molecular weights of carbon and oxygen, roughly 3.6 pounds of carbon dioxide are removed from the atmosphere to produce 1 pound of paper.
So rather than pondering the fate of the forest, we ought to concern ourselves with the fate of the paper. After we’ve made use of it, will we throw it away and deposit this carbon remnant into the ground? Or will we expend substantial financial and energy resources to recycle it back into the paper supply chain?
As environmentally conscious consumers, we should adopt fresh paper consumption habits and help the paper industry realize its full carbon-capturing potential.
Cruise Hall is a junior majoring in mechanical engineering. His column runs biweekly.