Green Stats: Can’t We Tell Them Without the Agenda?

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I just downloaded The State of the Paper Industry: Monitoring the Indicators of Environmental Performance, put out by the Steering Committee of the Environmental Paper Network. On the surface, the numbers sound impressive and scary. The big bad paper industry needs to be reigned in for the good of the planet. Old growth forests are being ravaged, landfills are overflowing, and paper mills are desperate for recycled fiber to meet the demand.

It’s the same old storyline. While I don’t doubt the individual data, the overall presentation, I believe, is misleading. At least in the Executive Summary, which is what most people will read, it mixes issues relevant to developing countries with those in industrialized nations; fails to make critical distinctions; and tells only a narrow (and therefore potentially misleading) section of the story. In fact, if you only read the executive summary, you’d think the paper industry everywhere, including the United States, was stuck in the 19th century.

I care about the environment. I care out our forests. I care about global climate change, indigenous peoples, and issues facing our landfills. But by being so driven by their agenda, it felt — at least to me — that the writers were more interested in sensationalizing the issues than providing the kind of even-handed look at the situation that is helpful.

I’ll give three examples:

Old-growth and mature, second-growth natural forests store much larger amounts of carbon than newly planted stands and once logged, require decades to recover the original amount of carbon they contained. Whether the tree grew in a mature forest or industrial tree plantation, climate change impacts multiply after it is harvested.

To me, this is a misleading paragraph. By creating a context of old-growth forests but then eliminating the term thereafter (replacing it with simply “mature forests”), the paragraph makes it sound as if most of the fiber harvested for paper comes from old growth forests and environmentally destructive tree farms. While that may be the norm in some developing countries, in the United States, 56% of the forests are privately owned. Many of these are mixed-age commercial forests like the responsibly managed portions of New York’s fabulous Adirondacks. If we don’t protect them by allowing at least a portion to be commercially harvested, they risk being sold off to the nearest real estate developer. What good will they do the environment then?

One in five acres of family-owned forestland is owned by someone at least 75 years old . . .  and as [land] owners age, this land is being divided, sold and transferred at an alarming rate, often for urban development. The critical question we need to ask is: How can we help private landowners hold on to and sustainably manage these rich ecosystems that supply us with clean air and water? [1]

The pulp and paper industry is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases among manufacturing industries, and contributes 9% of total manufacturing carbon dioxide emissions. The biggest greenhouse gas releases in pulp and paper manufacturing come from the energy production needed to power the pulp and paper mill.

Again, this is an inflammatory statement that only tells a small part of the story.

  • The paper and forest products industry plants approximately three trees for every one harvested.
  • U. S. mills generate nearly two-thirds (65%) of their energy on-site from renewable biomass.
  • U. S. pulp and paper mills and wood products facilities together produced 94% of the renewable fuel energy generated by all manufacturing facilities in all sectors.

While it’s true that one of the by-products of some renewable energy sources is carbon dioxide, what’s the alternative? Coal-power-driven electronic media?

The energy used by the average data center could power 25,000 households. Google alone is said to have nearly two dozen data centers. The U.S. government is said to have more than 1,000. Add in state governments, private corporations, and educational institutions, and the power requirements in the United States alone are staggering. [2]

The takeaway point from this section of The State of the Paper Industry report is that paper is bad, bad, bad. That simply isn’t true, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the report was written.

Currently, 37% of U.S. pulp and nearly 25% of Canadian pulp is produced from recovered paper. However, the use of recycled content varies widely among grades of paper, from an average of 45% recycled content in tissue products and 32% in newsprint to a low of 6% in printing and writing papers. Estimates by environmental groups and paper industry pulp producers suggest that as much as 1.5 million additional tons of recycled pulp per year is needed to meet projected new demand for recycled paper in the United States within the next five to ten years. But as demand increases, will there be enough supply? One encouraging trend is that paper recovery has increased every year over the past five years and in 2006 exceeded 53%.

I’m confused. Is the 6% of “recycled” content in our printing and writing papers really recycled? Or is it recovered? In this paragraph, the terms recycling and recovery seem to be used interchangeably. But when we talk about “recycled content,” we’re talking about mixed office waste — paper recovered from the consumer stream. When we talk about “recovered” paper, we’re generally talking about printing waste recovered at production facilities.

Mixing data on “recycled” paper and “recovered” paper streams is unhelpful because the collection and production costs, issues, and carbon footprints for both are different. Not to mention that, in the report, the section on old-growth forests and paper recovery flow from one to the other as if they are related and being faced by the paper industry everywhere.

I am not a heckler. I am not a nitpicker. I care about the environment. In fact, I care about it too much to accept when even well-meaning agendas get in the way. Sensationalizing, skewing, and demonizing may get the base riled up, but I can’t see it as the path to meaningful and helpful dialog — or change.

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