EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 8. Protecting Forest Products & Services: Lightening the Load

There is enormous potential in all countries to lessen the demand pressure that is shrinking the earth's forest cover. In industrial nations the greatest opportunity lies in reducing the amount of wood used to manufacture paper. In developing countries it also depends on reducing that used as fuel.

An examination of paper recycling in the top 10 paper-producing countries shows a wide variation. (See Table 8-4.) On the low end are China, which recycles 27 percent of its paper, and Italy, at 31 percent. At the high end are Germany at 72 percent and South Korea at 66 percent. The rate in Germany is high because the government has consistently emphasized the recycling of paper in order to reduce the flow to landfills. If every country recycled as much as Germany does, nearly one third less wood would be needed worldwide to produce paper.

The United States, the world's largest producer and consumer of paper, is far behind Germany but making progress. Twenty years ago, roughly one fourth of the paper used in the United States was recycled. By 1997, the figure had reached 46 percent. Contributing to this were the introduction of convenient curbside recycling, the banning of paper in many landfills, and mandates imposed by both the federal and state governments on recycled content in purchased paper, such as the one adopted by the Clinton administration in 1993.31

Some countries not among the top 10 producers are also making impressive progress. The Netherlands, for example, has set a goal of recycling 72 percent of all the paper used within its borders by 2001. This goal, which will put it on a par with Germany, seems likely to be reached.32

The use of paper, perhaps more than any other single product, still reflects the throwaway mentality that evolved during the second half of the last century. There are enormous possibilities for reducing paper use, including replacing facial tissues, paper napkins, disposable diapers, and paper shopping bags with cloth alternatives The Japanese have a special problem since their wooden chopsticks are often discarded after one use. As a result, some 25 billion chopsticks a year end up in the garbage in Japan. In attempts to solve a comparable problem, China is launching a program to reduce the use of throwaway chopsticks.33

In the electronic era, some uses of paper could be phased out almost entirely. Among these is the use of paper telephone directories, which can be replaced by online phone directories available on the Internet. Not all residences have access to the Internet, but it may now make sense to discontinue automatic distribution of phone directories and give them out only on request. This could save millions of tons of paper each year.

Newspapers devote most of their space to advertising. For example, a typical city newspaper in the United States will carry two pages of used car ads each day for 365 days a year. Although some people never buy a car, much less a used one, they nonetheless automatically get these pages with their daily newspaper. An online electronic directory of used cars in each city could largely dispense with this use of newsprint. Indeed, electronic directories for cars, apartment rentals, and various services such as home repair and plumbing will undoubtedly reduce newspaper ads and save paper.

The International Herald Tribune, published in Paris and printed at several different locations around the world, is a model of a paper-efficient newspaper. Owned jointly by the New York Times and the Washington Post, it carries material from both newspapers. It is trim and easy to read, with few ads. Within the United States, USA Today also has an unusually high rate of news to advertising. These newspapers are also available on the Internet.34

The largest single demand on our treesthe need for fuelwoodaccounts for just over half of all wood removed from forests. One way of reducing the pressure of fuelwood demand is to use wood more efficiently. While attention in the industrial world focuses on increasing the fuel efficiency of automobiles, much less attention has been given to the efficiency of cook stoves, the leading use of energy in many developing countries. A number of international aid agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, have begun to sponsor projects in this area, and with some success. One of its more promising projects undertaken in Kenya has involved the distribution of new cook stoves to 780,000 people. Investing public resources in replacing outmoded cook stoves could earn handsome dividends in forest protection and regeneration, including the restoration of forest services.35

Over the longer term, the key to reducing pressure on forests is to develop alternative sources of energy for cooking in the Third World. As the world shifts from an energy economy based on fossil fuels to one based on wind, solar, or geothermal energy (see Chapter 5), it will be much easier for developing countries without fossil fuels to develop indigenous sources of renewable energy. Although we do not know exactly what form the substitution will take as the world moves toward a hydrogen-based economy, we do know there is an abundance of locally available renewable energy in the developing world.

As the energy transition accelerates, the potential for replacing fuelwood with other local energy sources will become more evident. Whether countries replace firewood with electric hotplates fed by wind-generated electricity, solar thermal cookers, or some other source of energy, it will lighten the load on forests.


Table 8-4. Paper Recycling Rates, 10 Leadng Paper-Producing Countries and World, 1997
Recycling Rate
South Korea
United States
Source: Janet N. Abramovitz, "Paper Recycling Remains Strong," in Lester R. Brown et al., Vital Signs 2000 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), pp. 132-33.


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31. Janet N. Abramovitz, "Paper Recycling Remains Strong," in Lester R. Brown et al., Vital Signs 2000 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), pp. 132-33; John Young, "The Sudden New Strength of Recycling," World Watch, July/August 1995, p. 24.

32. Abramovitz, op. cit. note 31, p. 132.

33. Japan and China from Philip P. Pan, "China's Chopsticks Crusade," Washington Post, 6 February 2001.

34. On-line addresses: International Herald Tribune, www.iht.com; USA Today, www.usatoday.com.

35. Fuelwood as a proportion of total harvested wood from FAO, op. cit. note 9; Daniel M. Kammen, "From Energy Efficiency to Social Utility: Lessons from Cookstove Design, Dissemination, and Use," in José Goldemberg and Thomas B. Johansson, Energy as an Instrument for Socio-Economic Development (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 1995).


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute