While many futurists predicted that we would 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? A company's use of e-mail causes an average 40 percent increase in paper consumption. (Merchant 119) 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, as adverse effects from paper production are threatening the environment world wide. The U.S. currently gobbles up some 200 million tons of wood products annually, with consumption increasing by four percent every year. (Merchant 122) 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/or 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. (Merchant 124) 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 bio-diversity, in the continental U.S. see sidebar). Worldwide, global consumption of wood products has risen 64 percent since 1961. (Bailey et al 37) 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. In Indonesia, the pulp and paper industry is destroying rainforest so quickly that it will run out of wood by 2010, according to a report by Friends of the Earth. (Bailey et al 38) 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. (Bailey et al 38) 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.
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. (Merchant 130) 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. (Merchant 131) 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 1992. (Gedicks 44) 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 2000 that cites its role as "among the largest owners of sustainably managed private forestland in the world." (Bailey et al 45) Its raw material is trees, the report says, "the world's greatest renewable resource." (Bailey et al 45) 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. (Bailey et al 46) 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. (Merchant 137) 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 of pulp. But despite these market setbacks, research continues to offer strong evidence that non-wood fibers can be used for large-scale paper production in North America. And tiny demonstration projects have been very successful, while full-scale mills are moving forward overseas. According to Fiber Futures, a dedicated wheat straw pulp mill is being built in Turkmenistan. Progress is arriving incrementally. In Canada, the so-called Markets Initiative, with support from several major nonprofit groups and linked to the U.S. based Green Press Initiative, has persuaded 67 Canadian book publishers to buy their paper from forest-friendly sources. (Bailey et al 50) The Harry Potter books printed in Canada are among the converts. Meanwhile, paper activists are mobilizing. In late 2000, 75 members of more than 50 environmental groups from around the world gathered together to promote what they called "an environmentally and socially sustainable paper production system." (Merchant 142) The Environmental Paper Summit promotes collaborations on the use of environmentally friendly papers, and is planning outreach to progressive paper purchasers (including social justice groups and labor unions), producers and suppliers--all in an effort to change paper consumption habits. The Environmental Paper Summit's steering committee included Conservatree, the Center for a New American Dream, Co-op America, Dogwood Alliance, Environmental Defense, Forest Ethics, the Green Press Initiative, Markets Initiative, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Recycled Products Purchasing Cooperative. The process resulted in a Common Vision document that has already been signed by more than 80 nonprofit groups and corporations. (Merchant 142) A new push is desperately needed, because consumers have become complacent, and big potential purchasers have be come worried about steady sources of recycled paper. Recycled fiber content slid from a high of 10 percent in the early 1990s to a current rate of less than five percent. The Common Vision endorses kenaf and hemp production "if life-cycle analysis and other comprehensive and credible analyses indicate that they are environmentally and socially preferable to other sources of virgin fiber." (Gedicks 60) This view is common in the environmental community. One tree-free waste paper is made from 100 percent bagasse fiber, left over from sugar cane production. According to Reprograph's Erik Sanudo, the new Propal paper line was launched in 1999 and hopes to find uses in stores and offices for notepads and cash register rolls. (Bailey et al 66) Kimberly-Clark also uses bagasse in paper towels and tissues. The Common Vision also calls fur "responsible fiber sourcing" that cuts down on virgin wood fiber use, ends the use of wood products from endangered forests, and asks for a moratorium on turning natural ecosystems into monocrop wood plantations. The new movement could spur a process that has slowed after some promising developments. In 1996, widespread protests against logging operations - and memories of the severe 1994 price hike for pulp - prompted some publishers to investigate alternatives to tree-based paper. With the cooperation of seven newspapers, Al Wong of Arbokem developed a test newsprint that was 68 percent de-inked old newspapers, 12 percent thermo-mechanical wood pulp (which is crushed with grinders using steam at high pressures and temperatures), 11 percent ryegrass straw pulp, six percent rice straw pulp and three percent red rescue straw pulp. Some 200 tons of this mixed-origin newsprint were produced and test printed at the such newspapers as the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury-News and the Sacramento Bee. (Merchant 145) The experiment was successful. Sue Dorchak, quality-assurance manager at the Mercury-News, says her company had evaluated the agri-fiber's strength, appearance, runability and ability to take ink, and found only a tiny difference.
She said the newspaper was both "enthused and optimistic," but the experiment was not repeated (despite projections that the agri-pulp for newsprint would actually be cheaper than wood pulp product at a certain scale). (Bailey et al 72) Both hemp and kenaf offer excellent possibilities fur use as a virgin fiber replacement in newsprint, which tends to carry a high recycled content. Kenaf was first used in a print run by the Peoria Journal Star in 1977, after the federal Agricultural Research Service (ARS), based in Peoria, laid the groundwork through technological feasibility, studies. ARS proclaimed kenaf to be its top alternative fiber candidate for pulp and papermaking. The American Newspaper Publishers Association became interested in kenaf and produced a feasibility study in 1981. A joint venture company, Kenaf International, was also formed at that time. (Bailey et al 72) Unfortunately, once the efficacy of kenaf for newsprint was demonstrated in Illinois, ARS effectively moved on to other projects. Picking up the ball was the Kenaf Demonstration Project, which created some well-traveled kenaf for test purposes: It was grown in Texas (through the support of then-Congressman Kika de la Garza), pulped in Ohio, made into newsprint in Quebec and shipped to California, Texas and Florida for printing. Hard work by a number of dedicated advocates kept the dream of kenaf paper alive until the groundbreaking 1996 newspaper experiment. It's uncertain if the newspaper experiments will continue. Partly because newsprint (which does not face critical strength and brightness issues) already contains more than 50 percent recycled content, Arbokem and other companies now focus on other paper markets, particularly those (including writing paper and bright white boxboard) that currently uses high amounts of virgin fiber. (Merchant 157) With activism against the use of old-growth timber increasingly finding receptive ears, and the already embattled paper industry suffering the double trouble of low pulp prices and devastating insect infestations on their southern plantations, the time would seem to be propitious for a revival of natural fibers. While they're unlikely to say so, the paper giants listen when the environmental movement presents a united front (backed by the threat of boycotts) and offers a feasible plan for combining recycling with increased use of hemp, kenaf and other fibers.