What is in the way of replacing paper with more sustainable products?
In many ways the biggest obstacle appears to be our own habits and cultural conditioning. But behind our habits there is a huge business of merchandizing, marketing, logging and paper production.
The next time you're in a grocery store or other retail store, take a moment and look around you.
If you can relate to these lifestyle choices you're not alone, this is all an expression of the overwhelming, single use, rushing, convenience based, and often wasteful perspective that is far too common in our western culture right now. A perspective that it seems we are easily lost in, and that many other countries are emulating. A culture based upon wanting more, and more, and more, as quickly and as conveniently as possible.
Where is this taking us and who is getting the biggest benefit?
Politics of paper - In the United States
The logging industry has a huge lobby and influence in US politics. It is fueled by the need for disposable products made from wood fiber rather than investing in other substances that could sustainably replace paper made from wood.
Historically the timber industry in the United States has dominated forestry policy. The board of Forestry has the power to approve forestry regulations and set policies for the Department of Forestry. Unfortunately this means that the decisions made for our forests are influenced by a very non-partial industry.
This situation has led to two-thirds of U.S. forestlands being used for the production of commercial wood products, including brown paper bags. Two- thirds!
The US paper products manufacturing industry includes about 3,500 companies with combined annual revenue of about $160 billion.
Historically there has been very little emphasis on investing in the development of other fibers to replace paper made from wood. In some cases there has actually been a strong political movement away from sustainable products as is found in the history of Hemp.
Hemp is one of many fibers that should be explored to replace paper made from wood. (See our History of Hemp section for the story of Hemp in the USA.)
Politics of paper in China
China is the second biggest producer of paper in the world after the USA, and traditionally a great deal of its paper is made up mainly of agricultural residues - straw waste from rice, maize and sugar cane. Not only is making paper pulp from this waste residue an example of using all of our resources as completely as possible (in Europe and the USA this straw waste in usually burned), this practice has been an important part of the rural, small farmer economics within China.
Unfortunately the pulp mills that process this agricultural residue are old and cause a significant amount of pollution. They are being closed down by the Chinese government, and replaced with new and modern pulp mills; the technology put in the modern paper mills can process only wood for paper. This "modernization" means that the straw residue can no longer be used to create paper.
The impact of this change is twofold: it removes a necessary income stream from millions of farmers and ends many jobs, and it erases a sustainable practice and reinforces the much less sustainable practice of logging.
Politics of paper - Land use issues
Another very important reason to find sustainable fibers to replace paper made from wood is the very real impact on the communities that are impacted by logging. Whose land is used to make paper for those millions of paper bags we’ve been using?
When paper companies are granted concessions to log forests and establish fiber plantations, are they getting the full and informed prior consent of local communities or indigenous peoples with customary rights on that land? Although in some areas it is improving, abuse is far too widespread. It is often the poorest and least represented among us who are impacted the most. By making the choice to reduce paper and replace paper bags with sustainable choices like hemp, this impact can be greatly reduced.