APRIL 1998 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 4


TIMBER

 
Demanding Change in the Wood
and Paper Markets
 

by Ned Daly

The world is losing its forests, and fast. Three quarters of the earth's land mass were once covered with forests. Half of those forests have already been destroyed or converted to other uses, with the bulk of the destruction occurring since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Of the remaining forests, over half are badly degraded and seriously fragmented. Only one fifth of the original forest cover remains healthy and intact, according to a recent World Resources Institute report, "The Last Frontier Forests: Ecosystems and Economies on the Edge." Of these still pristine forests, only 2 percent have any type of legal protection.

Seventy percent of the remaining frontier forests are housed in just three countries: Russia, Canada and Brazil. Temperate frontier forests are the most endangered -- only 3 percent of the remaining frontier forests fall in temperate zones. And 76 countries assessed in the report have lost all their frontier forests. While traditional forest protection strategies have had some success in protecting specific forests, they have done little to curtail global deforestation rates.

Forest protection efforts in the past have focused on protecting critical forest habitat, but have failed to address the demand side of deforestation -- consumption.

"If we are to have any success in protecting the remaining primary forests," says Nigel Sizer, senior associate of the World Resources Institute, "conservationists must reduce demand for wood products, especially considering demand for these products is likely to double in the next 10 to 15 years."

Taking on the issue of consumption will require a serious restructuring of the forest protection movement and the type of campaigns it runs.

"The goals of the newly reformed conservation movement should be to protect the remaining primary forests worldwide, reduce consumption of wood products and create a reliable product certification system so consumers, when they do buy wood, are given the opportunity to make a responsible purchase," says Mike Roselle, a co-founder of Rainforest Action Network and Earth First!. "For the conservation movement to have any success in addressing deforestation, these three strategies must be addressed simultaneously."

While environmental groups have fought to protect specific forests and are now refining certification systems, a small but growing coalition of forest conservation organizations is just now beginning to develop demand reduction strategies. The idea is simple enough -- use less wood, cut fewer trees. The alternatives to wood consumption, such as reduced consumption, recycling and reuse and the use of other, more sustainable fibers, are available and practical. But changing how society consumes fiber resources requires a difficult process of give and take -- giving new opportunities to alternatives and taking market subsidies and advantages away from the timber industry.

"You are limited in what you can change by how well developed the alternatives are," says Andy Kerr, former director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council and now a consultant on natural resource and fiber issues. "You are limited in developing alternatives by how much change you can bring about. You need to slowly build up the opposition and slowly chip away at the subsidies and other advantages."

Brass for Gold Jewelry
Trees were not always the dominant U.S. source for paper or construction. Paper makers first started using tree pulp not much more than a century ago -- and tree pulp initially met with substantial opposition.

In 1867, the Berkshire Eagle newspaper in Western Massachusetts reported on the new innovation of using tree pulp for paper production: "The Smith Paper company took the entire output for the first year. But [the] feeling against wood pulp was so strong that it had to be delivered at night to the Columbia Mill so the dreadful truth wouldn't out. Other manufacturers scorned the use of wood pulp in their product instead of the tried and true rag content. Even if it could be done, which they doubted, it just wasn't proper, anymore than using brass for gold jewelry."

Prophetically, the Smith Paper Company closed just a few years after its historic feat because it ran out of trees.

Just down the road, in Dalton, Massachusetts, the Crane Paper Company, founded in 1801, is still in business. It has never used a tree to make Crane paper. Crane is proof that quality, technology or supply are not inherent problems for alternative fibers. Crane supplies the paper used for currency by the U.S. Treasury and for the U.S. president's letterhead.

Worldwide, nonwood fibers are frequently used as feedstock for paper. In developing countries, 50 percent of paper is made from nonwood fibers; in China the figure is approximately 90 percent.

The best alternative to wood is not a fiber but a process. Blending fibers, especially shorter, more plentiful fibers such as postconsumer recycled or agricultural residues (from crops such as wheat, corn, sugarcane or rice) and with stronger fibers such as hemp or kenaf seems to be the future of the paper industry, and is probably the most environmentally benign way to make paper.

Agricultural residues are a particularly attractive fiber to include in the mix. Wheat straw, rice straw, corn stover or sugar cane bagasse are both environmentally benign if harvested correctly and have a significant political constituency -- agricultural interests -- pushing policy changes. They are also plentiful.

The main barrier for the development of agricultural residues as a feedstock for paper seems to be a lack of a well-developed infrastructure. About half of the 123 to 214 million tons of agricultural residues produced annually are probably not needed to replenish fields and are available for use as pulp. U.S. paper mills use approximately 63 tons of pulp per year.

Given the viability of alternatives, why does the United States continue to destroy forest habitat to produce paper and other inappropriate wood products? "Are there issues regarding quality, processing, supply?" asks Peter Hopkins of Crane Paper. "A few, but wood has had 130 years of experience to refine growing, harvesting and processing techniques, as well as political advantages," he answers. There are also some infrastructural challenges -- such as collecting agricultural residue and transporting it to paper mills -- that must be met.

Still, on balance, "we are winning on the supply side," says Hopkins. "Alternatives are more accessible, better quality, cheaper and have created more diversified product lines. But we are losing on the demand side." Consumer purchasing power continues to support the timber industry.

And while the primary obstacle to developing alternative fiber-based paper is inadequate consumer demand, switching to alternative fibers will require some configuring on the production side. One natural advantage wood has over other fibers is its density, which makes it easier to transport. Lighter and bulkier alternative fibers are costly to ship to large central pulping or processing mills. The future for nonwood fibers lies in smaller, community-based mills close to the fiber source.

Building a Better Code
Building and construction in general have an enormous impact on the environment, consuming one-sixth to one-half of the natural and human-made resources used worldwide. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that a few months of building and construction can consume more resources and generate more pollution than a decade of a building's operations.

Wood is the dominant resource for building in the United States; 94 percent of U.S. houses use wood as their main building material. The amount of wood used in construction can be reduced in two ways, by substituting other materials and by using wood more efficiently. But efforts to employ these strategies are often blocked by building codes, which effectively mandate wood's domination of construction. Although builders have some latitude under the existing code, in general, U.S. building codes exclude or make it prohibitively expensive to use alternative materials or design.

The codification of the wood monopoly, say experts, is a consequence of the influence of construction interests, including builders, lumber companies and steel corporations, over the code-drafting process.

"The big [construction] industries have a major impact [on building codes], says Bob Fowler, a building code official from Pasadena California and former chair of the International Conference for Building Officials.

"The code development process is open to everybody," Fowler explains. "Anyone can send in a proposed amendment to the building code organization in their region, and it will be sent to the relevant committee. The committee will then have a hearing on the amendment. Industry influences the process by having a full-time professional to testify at the hearings. That is one way they have been able to perpetuate the use of traditional building systems while blocking others."

Fowler is leading an effort to adopt codes based on performance rather than material specification. Due to declining quality in commercial timber products and innovations with other materials, support is growing among builders, architects, local governments and building officials to level the playing field for building and construction materials.

One material that is seeing a renaissance in construction is earthen material. Adobe, cob and other earthen structures have been around for thousands of years, and are still used in much of the industrialized and developing world -- 15 percent of the French population lives in adobe or rammed earth homes. Many architects are revisiting these materials with new technologies and new design. Rammed earth dates back to at least 7000 B.C. in the Indus Valley, but is now being reborn in California's Napa Valley. Builder David Easton has developed a technique called PISE (Pneumatically impacted stabilized earth) which allows builders to use soil from the site to build the house.

Architect Nader Kahlili has done some amazing things with construction using only earth. He has decreased the amount of wood needed to build a home by 99 percent. Kahlili was able to get some support for his work through a grant from NASA (Kahlili has developed techniques that can be used on the tree-free moon), but because building codes ignore earthen construction (despite the fact that half the world's population lives in earthen structures) it was up to Kahlili to finance the testing to prove his designs and materials worthy of code approval. After six years and not one unsuccessful seismic or structural test, the city of Hesperia, California has authorized Kahlili to build 36 model homes.

Straw is another alternative to wood. Despite the hype from the three little pigs, straw is an excellent building material. The city of Tucson has used it to build low-income housing because of its affordability in construction and maintenance. Strawbale construction is generally cheaper per square foot to build, cheaper to heat or cool because of its superior insulation properties and cheaper to repair due to its lower-tech construction. But strawbale construction does not meet code in most of the United States -- even though it is more fire-resistant than wood and can withstand structural tests comparable to a wood-framed home -- because the code prescribes the use of wood in home building.

Even "traditional" wood homes can be built with less wood, if building codes will permit. Different structures need to perform different tasks. Seismic activity, heavy snowfall, hurricanes or dry, mild weather all place different pressures on a dwelling. Within a structure, loadbearing walls and interior nonloadbearing walls perform very different functions. But building codes treat all the walls the same and require a 2x4 stud every 16 inches. In many cases, studs can be spaced at 36 inches with no loss of structural integrity. This can save up to 17 percent of the total wood in a home, leading to significant cost, as well as wood, savings.

Revitalizing Recycling
"Other countries use less packaging than the United States, recycle more of it, and are considering [recycling] policy measures stronger than measures generally being considered in America," reports the Congressional Research Service.

Despite the gains of the last decade, the United States lags far behind other countries' recycling efforts. The United States ranks fifteenth in paper recycling among the top 20 industrialized countries.

Despite waning media attention, recycling still offers significant untapped opportunities to replace virgin wood fiber in paper and packaging.

The new push for recycling, if it is to develop, may come from proponents of local economic development. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, for example, recently reported on the success of that state's recycling program and impact on the state's economy. Twenty percent of municipal waste -- over two million tons -- is recycled, up from just 2 percent in 1988. Fourteen of the 67 counties now recycle more than 25 percent of their municipal waste. Eighty-five companies now manufacture products with recycled content, making up 4 percent of all the manufacturing jobs in the state.

Nationally, there were 7,500 recycling programs in the United States in 1996, up from 1,000 in 1988, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the number continues to grow. About 120 million people, 48 percent of the population, have access to curbside recycling.

Meanwhile, in Washington, recycling is relegated to the subject of Earth Day speeches and the work of school children. It receives little attention in federal resource policy. The resource committees in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are dominated by politicians with close ties to extractive industries. Urban representatives, who might be expected to champion recycling, are nowhere to be found.

In general, Congress and federal agencies view recycling as a waste prevention program, not as a process to harvest valuable resources. As a result, U.S. progress in diverting fiber from the waste stream has not been matched with success in the use of the fibers in commercial products.

Not coincidentally, federal policy has encouraged the rapid growth of chipmills in the southeast United States, with 100 new mills built in the last decade. At the behest of Big Timber, federal policy has encouraged unsustainable cutting on public lands by giving away forest resources at below-market prices and by suspending environmental laws in order to harvest the forest back to health. Simply conducting federal environmental impact studies that accounted for the environmental costs of harvesting and transportation (including government construction of docks on the Mississippi River) could help rein in the industry. Instead, federal support for chip mills has come at the expense of recycling. Five U.S. mills that process recycled market deinked pulp fiber and one integrated mill have closed since 1996.

Seeds of a Movement
Despite the control the timber industry has over the commodity markets in building, papermaking, pallets and packaging, there does seem to be a shift in resources and priorities toward more sustainable materials and design. Not only has the market seen an increase in alternatives, but some of the fledgling demand-side campaigns launched by forest protection groups have already met with some success.

An international campaign against the trade in Amazonian mahogany was successful in getting a number of species added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the first time a tree species was added to this list. A coalition of environmental organizations led by Greenpeace was able to dramatically reduce logging in the coastal rainforests of Clayquot Sound in British Colombia by forcing the cancellation of large contracts for pulp and lumber in the consuming counties of the United States and Europe. A consumer boycott called by the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network recently convinced two subsidiaries of the giant Mitsubishi Corporation to implement a plan to completely eliminate the use of tree-based paper and packaging products in their U.S. operations.

Increasingly, environmental organizations are turning to the use of boycotts and consumer campaigns to get old growth pulp and timber products off the market. The catalyst for this change has been a new conservation strategy which integrates forest protection, demand reduction, utilizing alternatives and third-party certification of timber products. For this strategy to succeed, it will have to become an international effort, and the conservation movement will have to be joined by many other stakeholders in demanding far-reaching solutions that go beyond the establishment of a few nature preserves.

Ned Daly is director of the Resource Conservation Alliance.