Facts about paper bags and trees

There are several decades-long running battles in the waste management and recycling business between different stakeholders that remind me of those civil wars in central African countries that never seem to end.
While the things the different parties say about one another are unpleasant sometimes, one can learn a lot just reading the information they rally to defend or promote their different positions.
One of these endless wars is between those who promote the “basket of goods” economics of municipal curbside recycling (where valuable commodities subsidize the cost of collecting and processing less valuable ones) and those who promote product stewardship for individual materials or product lines (such as used beverage containers, scrap tires, waste electronics, etc.). Leading the charge in those skirmishes in Canada are the soft drink folks and the grocers, on the one side, and the beer industry, on the other.
Other ongoing “civil wars” include the one between the proponents of incineration and their detractors, the die-hard believers in man-made global warming and the skeptics, and to some extent the managers and service providers in municipally-run systems and their counterparts in the private sector waste management industry.
Another ongoing war (of words and policymaking) that I’ve followed over the years is that between the paper (and paperboard) packaging industry and the association representing the plastics industry.
As a magazine editor I feel (happily) obliged to report “both sides” and have given lots of space over the years for op-ed pieces and case studies that show the benefits of systems, strategies, technologies and policies that promote certain kinds of plastic products and packaging, or products and packaging derived (ultimately) from wood.
John Mullinder, Executive Director of the Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) has just fired another missive in a recent blog entry entitled, “So where are all those trees we are ‘killing’?” which attempts to correct the record over plastics industry suggestions that using plastic shopping bags saves trees/
I don’t wish to simply side with Mullinder against the plastics folks. If you want to read his entire article, you can do so here:
What I thought I’d do is share some of the interesting facts from his article in this space. And I’ll add this comment, to offer a macro perspective.
When I started my career as an environmental journalist in the fall of 1989, Canada’s forest products industry, and the pulp and paper industry (by extension) were very much vilified in the mainstream media. There were many articles in those days built around sensational aerial photos of clearcut forests.
Without apologizing for what may have been some dubious practices back then, I think it’s fair to say the industry responded to the bad press and really got its act together.
Anyway, here are some of the facts from Mullinder’s blog entry that are worth knowing.
1. Canada’s lumber and paper industries harvest less than 0.2 per cent of the country’s commercial forest (in the most recent year for which data is available). As Mullinder writes, “That’s the whole industry: timber for housing and construction; pulp and paper for newspapers; office supplies; tissue; and a tiny little bit for packaging grades. In total: less than 0.2%.
These numbers come from Natural Resources Canada, the federal government department that’s charged with compiling an annual report on the state of Canada’s forests.
2. Over 70 per cent of Canada’s forested area has never been harvested.
3. Canada’s forest cover and wooded area has remained fairly constant over the past 20 years.
4. Canada’s use of forest resources and protection of endangered species both received “A” grades in a recent comparative study of 17 countries.
5. Some 38 per cent of the world’s independent, third-party, certified forests are right here in Canada.
6. One of the three Canadian mills that produces paper bag material uses predominantly recycled pulp (old corrugated boxes collected from the back of supermarkets and factories or from curbside) while the other two use wood chips and sawdust left over from sawmilling operations (for lumber production). For these mills, a fresh supply of tree material (to be shared with lumber) is only harvested when they can’t get enough chips and sawdust. All three mills are certified by internationally recognized, independent, third-party sustainable forest management programs.
7. Mullinder adds that “we don’t just ‘kill’ trees, we also re-grow them. About 67 per cent of the harvest is currently regenerated through tree planting and direct seeding (some 500 million seedlings per year or 1.4 million seedlings per day), while the remainder is regenerated naturally. The industry balances the harvest of the trees it needs, with the re-growth of the new forest.
Mullinder also offers a footnote on clear-cutting, stating that it’s not the evil some make it out to be. (I have long agreed with this.) Mullinder writes that clear-cutting is recognized as a sustainable harvesting that mimics some of the natural disturbance dynamics of the forests (e.g., fire, wind blow-downs, insects); in some ecosystems, it allows regeneration and rapid growth of certain tree species; it costs less; making forestry more economically viable; (and) it provides safer working conditions for loggers.” (Sustainable Procurement of Wood and Paper-based Products, Version 3 Update December 2012, page 2.60 www.SustainableForestProducts.org)

: I don’t know when, but I certainly plan to write something positive about plastics in a future blog entry! This piece is not anti-plastics, just interesting info about paper and cardboard.

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