Recycling and Deforestation

by Wm. Robert Johnston
last updated 2001

What reasons are given for recycling paper? To save trees; to prevent environmental consequences of deforestation; to save energy; and to minimize landfill requirements. The preceding exercise has examined some of these.

Given the enormous human consumption of wheat, why is there no need to recycle wheat? The pricipal reason is that wheat is a crop planted by farmers and grown for the specific purpose of being harvested and consumed. In the United States, the same is true for trees. Lumber companies who own forested areas and want to stay in business harvest trees and replant trees to harvest again years later. Because of tree planting by people who harvest trees, the number of trees in the U.S. has been steadily increasing for over 50 years. Recycling paper does nothing to reduce consumption of trees in the U.S.

To illustrate: from 1620 to 1920 the forested area of what is now the United States decreased about 30% as forests were cleared for farmland and later for lumber. However, forested area has increased since 1920. Total standing tree mass has also increased. In part due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the average standing tree mass per unit area of forest has increased. Put together, standing tree mass has increased 30% since 1958 in the United States. Currently this mass amounts to 600 metric tons per U.S. citizen and is increasing at the rate of 400 kg per year. Compare these figures to the 4 gram mass of a typical sheet of paper.

What about saving energy? Those that claim recycling paper saves energy are ignoring the energy consumed by gathering the waste paper and transporting it to a recycling site. When all energy consumption is taken into account, recycling paper uses much more energy than making paper from a tree in a forest. Since the increased energy is mostly supplied by burning hydrocarbon fuels, recycling paper produces more air pollution. In addition, paper recycling produces other chemical pollution which is not an issue with fresh paper. For example, the de-inking of waste paper produces chemical waste. This toxic waste amounts to about half a liter for each telephone book recycled.

In fact, the reason recycled paper costs more than fresh paper is because it uses more energy. In a free market economy, prices reflect production costs. Production costs include the cost of energy required, which is greater for recycling paper. Have you noticed that recycling centers pay for scrap aluminum but not for scrap paper? Recycling aluminum saves an enormous amount of energy. Businesses recognized this, saw they could produce aluminum cheaper by recycling, and so were willing to pay for scrap aluminum. Thus, in a free market a rule of thumb is: if it saves energy to recycle something, someone will pay you for it.

Now some recycling centers do pay for scrap paper, but not because it is profitable. The government is trying to promote recycling, and to do this they must subsidize it with tax money. In others words, if you are paid for scrap paper, you are paid with your own tax money to support an inherently wasteful process.

The fallback argument is landfill space. Environmentalists point out that space in available landfills is rapidly declining. This is really a reflection of the success of their own litigative efforts. The U.S. has no shortage of available, satisfactory space for landfills. What has happened is environmentalists have forced the premature closing of many existing landfills and have prevented private property owners from using their land to make new landfills. Waste disposal would not be a problem if the environmentalists would allow environmentally safe waste disposal to occur.

Recycling of paper, plastic, and many other materials is bad for the environment. It is also bad for the economy: this means that it indirectly hurts the ability of Americans to take care of their families. Since thoughtful people (and others) don't recycle, the government in some cities and states requires you to by law. Why? Because recycling is "the right thing to do." In other words, people who want to recycle do so because they have a feeling that they are doing a good thing. As in many cases, feelings and reality are quite different things.

© 2000, 2001 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 2001.
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