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Paper, scissors, headstone

Laura Sevier

18th December, 2008

Our rampant consumption of paper is leading to a meltdown of the world's forests. Mandy Haggith wants us to use less

Paper – it’s such a transient material. Our days are littered with it and we chuck it away so quickly: the morning news, envelopes, junk mail and photocopying, chocolate wrappers, lunchtime greaseproof bags and cardboard packaging, cinema tickets, TV listings and magazines – not to mention all those toilet rolls, kitchen towels and tissues.

It’s shocking when you work out how much we get through every year. The average British person uses 250kg of paper annually. To get my head around what 250kg of paper looks like, I built a display in my village hall. It took six back-wrenching wheelbarrow loads to get it into position. People were stunned at the resulting paper mountain.

In the UK we virtually have no home-grown paper production – 80 per cent of our forest products comes from other people’s forests. As a forest researcher, I have spent the past 10 years researching and campaigning for the protection of forests and the people dependent on them, working for the Centre for National Forestry Research, WWF and Greenpeace.

I’m lucky enough to have visited many of the world’s great forests in Russia, Borneo, the Amazon and Canada. There is nothing like pristine forests. Being British, we don’t know what it is like. I live on a woodland croft in the Highlands of Scotland, but even here the forests are ‘semi-natural’, rather than pristine old growth.

I have realised that the main threat to the forests of the world is consumption. It is consumer demand that is driving the destruction. Nearly half of all logged timber is used to make paper, and 70 per cent of the wood used comes from natural, pristine forests, not plantations.

The harmful impacts of paper production are felt not only by forests, however. Their destruction is releasing carbon from the trees and the soils beneath – deforestation is responsible for an estimated 20 per cent of global CO2 emissions. It takes as much energy to make a tonne of paper as it does a tonne of steel, and more water than any other industrial product. The main production impacts result from the toxic chemicals used in pulping and chlorine bleaching to make paper whiter. Pollution to air and watercourses and the release of heavy metals in solid wastes have caused ill health and contaminated land around the world. The pulp and paper industry is also involved in abuses of human and land rights, particularly by taking land from indigenous peoples to grow trees for fibre for paper. Forest destruction won’t stop until everyone stops making money from it – which, at the consumer end, means reducing demand.

As a Briton, I want to do something about our demand. I helped set up and am now the co-ordinator of The Environmental Paper Network, a coalition of 52 organisations in 21 countries that aims to make the European paper industry more sustainable. The network focuses on two areas. The first is reducing consumption (see www.shrinkpaper.org). We work with corporations on this, too – banks, for instance use huge amounts of paper. The second is working with finance, persuading them not to fund unsustainable mills. There are plans for 50 new pulp mills to be built, all in remaining forest areas. We’ve had some success with this already.

I believe that paper, like cats, should have nine lives. It can be recycled at least five and up to 10 times, but even recycling has negative impacts, namely ‘waste miles’ – a scandalous 68 per cent of waste paper exports go to Asia, mainly China.

The real answer is to reduce paper consumption and stop wasting paper. Break some of your paper habits today and you will definitely feel better for it. Less is best.

As told to Laura Sevier

Maggy Haggith’s tips on saving paper

• Think before you print, or print double-sided
• Don’t accept fliers or free papers
• Share magazines and newspapers
• Reuse envelopes
• Use scraps of paper instead of Post-it notes
• Use recycled toilet paper
• Carry a handkerchief instead of tissues
• Limit junk mail by registering with the Mailing Preference Service – see www.mpsonline.org.uk


Mandy Haggith’s book Paper Trails (£12.99) on sale now

This article first appeared in the Ecologist August 2008


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