People seem to think it’s a given that if you recycle paper, we will have more trees on the planet. The opposite is true: recycling paper reduces the number of trees on the planet.
Here’s the crux of the problem in people’s understanding of the relationship between trees and paper: Paper is made from trees owned by paper companies who own tree farms. Paper is not made from random trees in your neighborhood that evil people come and chop down in the middle of the night without your permission to use for paper.
If less paper is needed, those paper companies will produce less paper, so they will need smaller tree farms. Those paper companies aren’t going to own big swathes of land for trees to grow old and die. And when the trees die, those companies aren’t going to plant a new tree to replace it. They’re going to sell that land to someone who will do something else with it. And the buyer isn’t going to plant trees, they’re going to put buildings or a parking lot on it. That means fewer trees, not more trees.
On the other hand, if we use more paper, those paper companies need bigger tree farms, so we will have more trees in the world. If we use 10% more paper, paper companies need to plant more than 10% more trees to account for future growth (trees don’t grow overnight). So the size of tree farms will grow faster the more paper we use. More companies will enter the industry, prices will come down through increased competition, we will use more paper because it’s even less expensive, the paper companies will need even more trees, and so on. It’s a positive self-reinforcing cycle.
Paper recycling advocates cite other reasons to recycle paper: 1) keeping paper out of our ever-growing landfills, 2) recycling paper uses less energy and pollution. The size of our landfills aren’t really a problem space-wise and they generate revenue for the locality (it costs money to put stuff in landfills) so cities really aren’t worried about landfills. It’s true that producing paper from recycled paper uses less energy and pollutes less, but no one knows exactly by how much. Some say it’s half, but it’s probably closer to just 25% less energy. And driving trucks around picking up paper to recycle adds to the energy consumption and pollution of recycling.
Energy consumption and pollution will be solved by other means, not by recycling paper. Paper companies naturally want to cut their energy costs to have bigger profits, so they are working on that already. They don’t care to stop polluting, so we need government regulation to reduce pollution. This has the side-effect of creating anti-pollution technologies and businesses built around them, which creates more jobs without killing the paper industry jobs. That’s also a positive self-reinforcing cycle.
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