The Future Of Media: Paper

PaperIn February 2008, The New York Times ran a piece called "Pushing Paper Out the Door" with a graphic depicting a contemporary pulp-free living space that would liberate residents from clutter: "The Paperless Home." It looked pretty slick, boasting digital picture frames, e-books, flatscreen televisions and smartreaders on kitchen appliances. Though maybe, if you'll pardon the expression, good on paper, the image felt reminiscent of a wireless future promised in technology rags 10 years ago that has and hasn't come to pass.

Despite the terabytes of paperless data transforming our lives, we're using more paper today than ever. A recent report from RISI Inc., a leading provider of news, forecasts and data in the global paper and pulp industry, shows virtually uninterrupted growth in paper usage worldwide. Global paper consumption - everything from tissues, books and newsprint, to the cardboard boxes that package millions of international imports - is projected to increase 60 percent in the next 15 years. The global population consumed roughly 368 million tons of paper products in 2005. RISI foresees that figure rising to 579 million tons by 2021, with much of the demand coming from Asia and India.

The average American uses more than 700 pounds of paper each year, by far the most per capita. China's demand for paper will more than double in the next two decades, reaching 143 million tons annually by 2021. China's sudden appetite for pulp seems a natural corollary to its industrial might and trading surplus. As economies grow, so too does their paper usage. China is already the biggest importer of recovered paper from the United States, and most of that ends up packaging the millions of industrial exports to their biggest client. The Red Dragon will surpass the West in paper consumption around 2012, at about the 100 million-ton mark. This feat will come four years after overtaking the United States in carbon dioxide emissions.

A global increase in demand for paper is ominous news for the world's remaining forests - half of which have already been cleared for man's use. Virgin timber remains the primary resource in the energy- and resource-intensive paper industry. Though paper recovery is at an all-time high in the United States - we recovered about half of the 84 million tons of paper used - pulp can only be reused six times. So even in a perfect world, where every shred is recovered, there would still be a need to cut down trees.

Much of that timber will come from countries with emerging economies. Those nations lacking the organization, funding and domestic environmental drive of their first-world counterparts are the most likely resource pools. A report from RISI in 2004 predicted, "Southern hemisphere plantations, native forests in Russia and Eastern Europe will underpin the demand in the coming decades." Latin America, says RISI, will increase its wood pulp capacity from 14 million tons to 36 million by 2019.

That the world will use more paper is not necessarily a death knell for forests, nor does it ensure prosperity for America's paper industry. Paper manufacturers will fulfill the increased demand, and there are uplifting signs of greater forest stewardship and adoption of sustainable business practices. In North America, an industry-wide shift to independently certified sustainable forest products is well under way.

Karen Brant, vice president of market affairs for the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), says, "Canada and the United States are very passionate about their forests. Forestry certification is a voluntary process, and businesses don't only want to tell their customers they're doing the right thing - they want to do the right thing."

In 2005, Weyerhaeuser, one of the largest paper and pulp companies in the world, became the first to adopt the chain-of-custody certification. Weyerhaeuser's CEO and president, Daniel S. Fulton, represents the SFI board's economic sector, as does John Faraci, chairman and CEO of International Paper Company. Industry presence is balanced by social sectors and nonprofit conservation organizations.

Bob Obernier, the founder of Horizon Paper, is another strong believer in certification. "Forest certification is the thing to do these days. Whether it's SFI or the Forest Stewardship Council (FCS), the bottom line is that these organizations have the paper mills scurrying to become certified. It ensures the boreal forests will continue to exist and thrive and eliminates the possibility of redwood stands and giant sequoia being decimated. This is good for the industry and for us consumers, as well."

The business buzzword is sustainability, not coincidentally appearing as energy prices skyrocket. Converting our throwaway economy into a renewable economy is the holy grail of capitalism.

The paper business is a resource hog. At every step in its production, from deforestation to manufacturing to its final act - with a starring role in our landfills - paper is among the great liquidators of modern industry. How big a hog is the paper business? Start with forests: 40 percent of the world's timber goes toward paper. The source fiber (either from a virgin tree or recycled paper) gets chemically or mechanically converted to pulp, then goes through a hydra-pulper. According to the EPA, the paper industry is the largest industrial water user per ton of product in the United States.

In terms of pure energy, paper is the third largest industrial user. Finally, it's saddled with the fourth largest toxic-release inventory, three times that of plastic and nearly equal to the chemical industry.

As for recovered paper, much of it ultimately ends up in landfills, anyway. A great deal of paper recycled in North America gets shipped to China, whose demand for paperboard and corrugated paper has skyrocketed. Guess where that goes after safely encasing the goods.

"Magazine and book publishers are supporting the use of recycled fiber as well as SFI and FCS," says Obernier. "However, the Chinese and Asian demand for recycled fiber has forced the price up and limited availability dramatically. Add to that the fact that fuel costs have also risen dramatically here. Put the two together, and you have both a shortage and an expensive cost for recycled fiber."

Ironically, paper is one of the necessities of an industrialized civilization, but has carried itself like a drunk who can't brew beer. The present decade is unfolding like a Sunday morning after a spectacularly reckless bender. This failure to look beyond the next beer, or the next fiscal quarter, has led our economy to the brink of collapse. Whether it's timber, oil, automotive or textile, industry leaders are looking into the mirror and seeing a haggard face that never considered tomorrow. Didn't even buy aspirin. Now here we are, half-broke, our neglected wives gone off to China, Mexico or Brazil.

There is a great risk that competing interests won't play ball, and therefore a strong temptation to play unfairly. As Obernier puts it: "The reality is that outside North America and Europe, there has been little effort globally on forest sustainability or FCS or SFI. Europe and [the United States] stand alone for the most part. Asia - except for Korea and Japan - South America, Russia and others are far behind and show little interest in catching up."
There's nothing complicated about the consequences of reckless deforestation. It is, therefore, a good thing that trees are the financial livelihood of paper manufacturers. Weyerhaeuser may own the forests, but in reality, the forests own Weyerhaeuser.
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