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Earth Friendly: Paper production

By Victoria Advocate
Jan. 26, 2012 at midnight
Updated Jan. 25, 2012 at 7:26 p.m.


By Marie Lester

Recycle, recycle, recycle. You've been reading about it so much lately that you might be getting tired of the topic. But wait, there's more.

Did you know that recycling paper doesn't really save trees? It breaks my little heart to think of a forest being cut down just to feed my post-it note addiction.

And I love a good hike through the forest - the ground soft with leaf litter beneath my feet, the air fresh and exhilarating, and the sky so high above the tree tops. I could walk in the woods for days . or at least until I got blisters on my feet. I don't want to see these forests go away.

I've always held some misconceptions about forests, but a friend from the Texas Forest Service set me straight. The first misconception is that you have to travel to the great north woods to see a forest. Actually, Texas has about 600,000 acres of public land divided into four national forests - so you don't have to travel north to get to one, but east instead.

The second misconception is that all forests are in danger of being cut down to make paper. They aren't. Most forests are managed for many uses - including growing crops of trees that are meant to be harvested.

Tree crops are cut down to make paper, but replanted to grow more tree crops.

So we aren't really losing trees when we cut them down to make paper because they are getting replanted over and over again.

What about the rainforests you might ask? Tropical rainforests are rarely used to make paper. Deforestation of the rainforest is performed to create more space for agriculture (thus trees are not replanted like in a managed forest) or for firewood (more than one half of the wood harvested every year is burned right up for cooking and heating).

Only about 17 percent of the wood used worldwide is for papermaking - and most of this wood is wood chips and leftovers from manufacturing other wood products.

The United States is the leading producer of paper, with more than 500 mill operations.

Texas forests alone produce about 2 million tons of paper products annually that are sent to these paper mills. The forest industry uses every part of the tree. Paper is made from branches, wood chips and trimmings. Lumber is made from tree trunks.

Bark is ground into mulch. Natural chemicals from the trees are used to make products such as turpentine and photographic film. Leaves, needles and small branches are left to replenish the soil before replanting.

Though recycling paper doesn't necessarily save trees, it is still important to recycle paper. Recycling paper saves space in our landfills.

The United States uses 100 million tons of paper annually; in a landfill that would take up 300 cubic yards of space (or fill 120,000 Olympic size swimming pools). Using recycled fibers to make paper also uses less energy and water than using virgin materials.

And, fewer chemicals are needed to make paper with recycled fibers because they were chemically treated the first time they were made into paper, so there is no need to do it again.

Thirty-three percent of average household garbage consists of recyclable paper products. Newspapers, magazines, pizza boxes and junk mail are some examples of recyclable paper products. Paper can be recycled about five to seven times. After that, papermaking fibers become too short and weak to be made into new products. For this reason, it is necessary to harvest new trees for paper, or to use a percentage of recycled content paper blended with virgin paper. Some products, such as paper towels, cannot be recycled because they are already a lower quality of paper - meaning the fibers they consist of are too short and weak to be remanufactured into new paper. Thank goodness it's the same case for toilet paper.

Buying recycled is also important. Recycled paper is manufactured into many more products than just more paper. It is made into insulation for walls, pressed into paperboard for countertops, used in kitty litter products and used as a bulk material to make compost.

When you buy paper products, look for the Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative logos. These are certification processes that paper manufacturers go through to make sure their products are from responsibly harvested forests. Responsible harvesting means following environmental regulations, replanting, protecting wildlife and respecting the needs of the community in which the trees are being harvested.

The next time you drive through the forest, say thank you. Thank you for being my next post-it note or newspaper.

Marie Lester, is the environmental programs coordinator for the city of Victoria's Environmental Services Department. You may contact her with topic ideas, inspiration, questions and comments at cmlester@victoriatx.org.

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