Watch out for paper cuts


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All around us the stacks just keep piling up. People constantly use more paper. It you made one pile out of all the paper produced each year, it would reach sixteen times farther than the moon!

Many experts predicted that computers and e-mail would replace paper. It hasn’t happened. Global paper use has more than doubled since the 1970s and analysts expect it to rise by another third over the next decade. Asia consumed almost three times more paper in 1997 than in 1980. The internet hasn’t even put much of a dent in traditional postal deliveries. In the United States, where e-mail first took off, mail deliveries in 1998 were up 16% over 1993.

We all know we use too much paper. Even so, the figures in ’Paper Cuts: Recovering the Paper Landscape’ still come as quite a shock. Janet Abramovitz and Ashley Matton from the Worldwatch Institute present a compelling tale of excessive consumption gone wild, particularly in the United States. On average, each U.S. household receives 850 pieces of junk mail per year and each person in the civilian labor force uses 12,000 sheets of office paper. Many industrial countries’ waste disposal systems can no longer handle the rising mounds of paper. Whereas the average African used only six kilograms of paper in 1997, the industrialized country average was 164 kilograms. Globally, pulp and paper account for 4% of total energy use and it can take up to 83,000 liters of water to produce a ton of paper.

About one-half of all paper gets used for packaging, but demand for printing and writing paper has risen fastest.

The pulp and paper industry has become completely global. About one-quarter of world production gets exported and the industry accounts for almost one half of all international trade in forest products. Billions of dollars have flown into countries such as Brazil, Chile, and Indonesia to produce pulp and paper for China, Japan, and Western Europe.

The good news is that recycled paper now supplies almost 40% of the world’s fiber supply for paper. Nevertheless, old-growth forests in countries such as Canada, Russia, and Indonesia continue to provide almost 10% of this total. Other natural forests contribute an additional 30%. The remainder comes from plantations (16%) and non-wood fibers (7%). And even though the amount of recycled paper and paper produced from plantations has risen rapidly, total demand has gone up even quicker. So they still use more natural forest to make paper today than they did several decade ago.

Economists tell us that every time some company sends out another piece of junk mail or someone cuts a hundred-year-old tree to make paper, human welfare increases. Abramovitz and Matton disagree. They suggest that if we reduced waste and used more recycled and lighter paper, we could help the environment and still be just as happy. They also say governments should take action to get industries to adopt new technologies that use less water and don’t pollute as much. Perhaps they are right.

You can down a free promotional copy of ’Paper Cuts’ at:

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Further reading

If you have any trouble downloading the paper or wish to send comments about this note to Janet Abramovitz you can write her at: