Save trees? Use more paper

Mon, 29/04/2019 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

On 15th April this year, The Times reported:

There’s a new front line in the war on environmentally damaging waste: the humble till receipt. Following on from campaigns against supermarket plastic bags, plastic straws and single-use coffee cups, a new initiative called Beat the Receipt wants to outlaw paper receipts unless specifically requested by the customer. It argues that ten billion receipts were handed out in Britain last year and that two thirds ended up straight in the bin. That’s the equivalent of 53,000 trees, or the annual destruction of Sherwood Forest.

Sure enough, Beat the Receipt is working hard to get support for this move.

I had a tongue-in-cheek conversation with a friend about this. Here was the case I made, not entirely seriously:

The main thing objected to here is the destruction of forest. But you have to remember the economic laws of supply and demand. If we want more trees in the world (supply), we have to create a demand for those trees (paper). So the way to make sure there are lots of trees is to use as much paper as we can. That will drive up the demand, which will in turn drive up the supply. So, in the name of saving the forests, more receipts please!

Now, I wasn't being entirely serious.

But neither was I being entirely facetious. Let's think about this a little more carefully.

There is something in it

Here are two reasons why cutting down on our use of paper is a good thing:

Wood for making paper is a crop.

Part of the reason why we need not to use too much paper is because it's a very slow growing crop. It takes 10 years, minimum, to grow a tree that can be cut down to make paper. So the supply curve cannot respond to the changes of demand with any speed. So if our use of paper goes up too rapidly, we'll cut down trees that we cannot replace straight away. Equally, if we cut down our use of paper, the trees we do have will stay in the ground longer before they're needed.

So, considered on short-term horizons, the number of trees around the world will be higher if we use less paper, and lower if we use more paper.

The second reason is that recycling is becoming more efficient. We want to use as much recycled raw materials as we can to feed our hunger for paper, so that trees do not need to be cut down. But there are limits to what can be achieved here, so using less paper means a higher proportion of recycled raw material.

The other comment to make is that we obviously need to source responsibly. Paper should never come from virgin forest, from slow-growing hardwood trees that take too long to recover, or even worse from species of trees that are indigenous to particular parts of the world and risk being lost forever.

But we need to come back to the point about supply and demand.

Supply and Demand

As I say, wood for making paper is a crop.

The vast majority of wood for paper comes from plantations where trees are grown specifically for this use. Sure, if our paper use goes down, short-term the trees stay in the ground for longer. But what happens in the medium-long term?

The trees that stay in the ground for longer are grown on land that the farmer needs to continue to tend and manage, whilst waiting longer for harvest (felling) to come. So the cost of producing one tree's worth of wood increases significantly. Meanwhile, there is an oversupply of trees to feed the paper and packaging industries, which means buyers can source wood more cheaply than before. These two pressures mean that the farmer is making less profit (from which to feed his or her family), or even moves to make a loss.

When those trees are felled, and the wood is sold, the farmer has to decide whether to replant with fresh trees, or to use the land for something else. The less profitable tree-farming becomes, the less likely they are to replant. The land won't simply return to old-English style deciduous natural woodland. Instead, they'll grow cereal crops or rapeseed. More likely, they'll find other uses entirely. In decades gone by, the land could have been landscaped and turned into a golf course. Now, golf courses around the country are struggling to maintain a sufficient membership for profit and are themselves applying for changes of use.

In modern Britain, there is an urgent need for housing. Many plantation forests would be considered greenbelt under current legislation. However, there is a shortage of brownfield land for housing, so all local authorities are currently being asked by the government to identify land for fresh development, maximising the benefit whilst minimising the conservation harm. So it seems likely that some plantation forestry would end up as new housing developments, or even a fresh wave of new towns.

In other countries, the planning process is less restrictive, and farmer would be able to change the use of their land with less red tape to cut through. So we can expect this to happen far more in the developing world.

The way to prevent this is to ensure that demand for paper and board remains high. Then there's a natural incentive for land-owners to keep their plantation forestry for the generations to come.

There is a parallel here with coca growing in South America. Some large bulk buyers of coffee beans have been driving down the prices they'll pay at the regular coffee market. As a result, some coffee-growing farmers are finding that coca is now a more profitable crop than coffee, and are switching the way they use their land.

What do we conclude?

My tongue was in my cheek and remains so. But it seems to me that, long-term, there will be more forest in the world if the demand for paper remains strong. (Again, take it as read that I'm not proposing we ever source our paper from pristine sections of the Amazon; I'm talking about farming wood.)

Or, at the very least, I'm trying to say this: The world and its economy is a complex place. Intervention to tell people that they should consume less of something affects things in ways we cannot foresee. The equation: "Fewer till receipts = more trees" is never as straight forward as it first appears. Greater caution and thought is needed before we jump on bandwagons that appeal at first glance.

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