Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#468 - Cut Waste, Not Trees, 15-Nov-1995

The attack on the environment by so-called "conservatives" in Congress
has caused a radical re-thinking throughout the environmental
community. People are recognizing that they must stop working alone and
must start building alliances.

Among other developments, a new coalition has formed between forest
activists, energy-conservation advocates, and toxic pollution fighters.
Perhaps most importantly, this coalition includes people aiming to
create (and retain) good jobs in their communities. Their goal is to
cut use of wood in the U.S. by 75% in 10 years. An excellent new report
provides the rationale, and describes the plan.[1]

Here's the thinking behind the new coalition. Lois Gibbs, of Citizens
Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (CCHW) [Falls Church, Virginia;
phone: (703) 237-2249] is spearheading an anti-dioxin campaign. Dioxin
is among the 2 or 3 most toxic chemicals ever discovered, and it is
produced by incinerators, by paper mills, by metals smelters, and by
the production of many pesticides. (See REHW #290, #390, #391, #414,
and #438.) Now CCHW has joined with the Rainforest Action Network of
San Francisco [phone: (415) 398-4404] in a Wood Use Reduction Campaign.
The goal is to reduce wood consumption in the U.S. by 75% within 10
years --an ambitious goal, but one that can serve as the "glue" to
bring many environmental groups and economic development groups
together. Rainforest Action is in it to save the world's forests. CCHW
is in it to save forests, too, but their main aim is to reduce toxic
dioxin and stupid waste disposal.

For example, as Gibbs points out, paper (which, in the U.S., is made
almost entirely from wood) is a major fuel for municipal solid waste
incinerators, which are also a major source of toxic dioxin emissions.
If solid waste incinerators were shut down this act alone would:

** Significantly reduce the nation's serious dioxin problem;

** Stop virgin wood products such as shipping pallets and paper
products from being used mindlessly as fuel in incinerators (half of
all hardwood harvested in the U.S. is for pallets, much of it discarded
after one use);

** Force municipalities to manage wood and paper waste differently (in
other words, reprocess rather than landfill or incinerate them).

Gibbs said recently, "At Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, we
envision a wood reduction campaign that uses a collaborative model
similar to our McToxics Campaign of 1987 [which successfully forced
McDonalds to stop using foam clamshells for packaging fast food].
...Thanks to that campaign, people now look at foam packaging
differently. We need to do the same with the image of paper and wood
waste, by informing Americans about the connections between the
destruction of forests and dioxin." The campaign to reduce wood
consumption by 75% also offers significant opportunities to create new
jobs both in cities and in rural areas.

The destruction of virgin forests is occurring on a massive scale
around the world, in Indonesia, in Siberia, in British Columbia, and in
Latin America. Worldwide, some 14 million acres of rainforests
disappear each year. In the U.S., 95% of virgin forests are gone, with
only 5% remaining. Forests are home to most of the world's species and
most of the world's indigenous peoples. Forests provide important free
ecological services -- holding water on a grand scale, producing huge
quantities of oxygen, and providing major cooling. (When the forests of
southern Honduras were cut, the average (median) outdoor temperature
rose 13.5 degrees Fahrenheit (7.5 degrees Celsius).[2] In addition,
forests serve human needs directly, producing game, medicines, fruits,
gums, nuts, resins, fiber, and firewood.

Industrial logging in forests is a major cause of ecological
destruction and the loss of biodiversity. For example, in the U.S.,
some 350,000 miles of logging roads have been cut through forests --
more than 7 times the total length of the U.S. interstate highway
system. Only 10 percent of the inhabited Earth remains in roadless
condition. The other 90 percent is chopped up by roads into segments of
less than 8000 acres. This is startling considering we haven't
approached the 100-year anniversary of the automobile. Logging is a
major cause of this disturbance.

Now environmentalists have determined to save the world's forests by
confronting the major source of forest destruction: the rising demand
for wood, particularly in the industrial world where wood is wasted on
a grand scale. Among industrialized nations, the most wasteful is the
U.S. (France, for example, has per-capita paper consumption that is 50%
of ours.) The U.S. logging industry expects a 46% increase in logging
operations by the year 2040. If this comes true, U.S. logging in 2040
will equal today's combined logging by the U.S.,Canada and Sweden.

There are two major paths that wood products follow when they leave the
forest. One passes through sawmills, plywood mills, veneer, or other
wood panel mills, and then into the network of building construction,
shipping, manufacturing, and furniture industries. The other path
passes through pulp mills into the larger system of paper, paperboard,
and fiberboard production.

Together, the two paths --generally building materials and paper --
account for more than 80 percent of industrial wood use in the U.S.
(the other 20 percent includes fuel wood, wood chips, and raw logs for

Thus a campaign to reduce wood consumption will focus on getting wood
out of buildings, and getting wood out of paper. Getting wood out of
buildings requires 2 basic steps:

(1) Reduce wood in building construction, substituting modern materials
(NOT steel or concrete, which create problems of their own) and
efficient construction techniques. Nearly 90 percent of all housing in
the U.S. is constructed of wood and the average new home in the U.S.
uses 1600 cubic feet of wood products. Modern materials and
construction techniques can reduce the needed wood substantially.[3]

(2) Building codes must be changed to allow construction using recycled
wood (from old barns, for example) and earth materials (rocks, sand,
silt, clay, and even straw bales [discussed below]). The Uniform
Building Code was adopted at a time when wood supply was considered
limitless. The code must be changed.

Two very promising --and time-tested --building materials are adobe (in
dry climates), and rammed earth (in any climate); 15% of the population
of France today lives in adobe or rammed earth buildings. A relatively
new construction material is baled straw, which can be used in any
climate. Initially developed at the University of Arizona (Tucson),
straw-bale buildings have now been built in many states and in Canada.
Again, a major obstacle is the building code. Straw-bale homes are
structurally strong, very energy-efficient, and fire-resistant. Manuel
A. Fernandez, the State Architect of New Mexico recently wrote, "ASTM
[American Society of Testing Materials, in Philadelphia] tests for fire
resistance have proven that a straw bale infill wall assembly is a far
greater fire resistive assembly than a wood frame wall assembly using
the same finishes." It turns out that straw bales contain enough air to
provide excellent thermal insulation, but not enough air to support a
fast fire. (I have been in a straw-bale house at Genesis Farm in
Blairstown, N.J.; inside, it has the snug feel of a well-made adobe
house. From the outside, it has sharp, modern lines and an eye-pleasing
tan stucco finish. If you didn't know the walls were baled straw, you
wouldn't guess it.--P.M.)[4]

Getting the wood out of paper is, if anything, easier than getting the
wood out of building construction. Today, quality paper is made from
rice and barley straw in China, from sugar cane waste ("bagasse") in
Mexico and India, and from the kenaf plant in Australia. There are 300
mills around the world making paper without wood.

The most promising wood substitutes for making paper are the kenaf
plant, and straw --the leftover stalks from cereal grain production.
Paper recycling can only carry us so far because the paper fibers break
and become shorter when paper is recycled. To give recycled paper good
qualities, new fibers need to be mixed in. Those new fibers need not
come from wood --leftover stalks from farmer's fields will work nicely,
and so will kenaf. Thus the city, as supplier of recycled fiber, can
coordinate with rural producers of non-wood fibers, creating jobs and
income for both. (The hemp plant will produce high-quality paper as
well. Kimberly-Clark, a U.S. Fortune 500 company, operates a paper mill
in France producing hemp paper for Bibles and cigarettes. But in the
U.S. growing hemp is a serious federal crime--even hemp with its
narcotic characteristics bred out. This stymies development of a hemp
industry. Walt Disney sells clothing made from hemp, but not from fiber
grown in the U.S.)

Marvelously efficient is the use of agricultural residues to make
paper; it requires no new land brought into production. A small-scale
mill in British Columbia is making paper profitably from agricultural
waste today, and 3 more mills are planned. The small scale is an
advantage because it keeps capital needs low, making such mills
suitable for community-scale economic development.

In sum, reducing wood use by 75% in 10 years seems doable, and it puts
the environmental community into a new posture: cooperating across
issues, and combining economic development with environmental

And there is one other big benefit: Reducing the use of wood to
maximize social and environmental benefits will require us to measure
our efforts in new ways. In many different areas (forest advocacy,
pollution prevention, recycling/waste management, energy conservation,
and community development), we will need to measure our efforts against
a long-term vision of where the paper and wood industries should
generally be headed. We will need to set targets for them, not leaving
economic and social decisions exclusively in the hands of corporations
any longer. Finally we must judge ourselves by our willingness to
demand a future that more than a minor variation of the status quo.
Parts of the old environmental movement may regard their work in a new
light, when judged by this criterion.

--Peter Montague


[1] Atossa Soltani and Penelope Whitney, editors, CUT WASTE, NOT TREES;
Rainforest Action Network [450 Sansome Street, Suite 700, San
Francisco, CA 94111; telephone: (415) 398-4404; E-mail:
rainforest@igc.apc.org], 1995).

[2] J. Almadenares and others, "Critical regions, a profile of
Honduras," THE LANCET Vol. 342 (1993), pgs. 1400-1402.

[3] For further information, contact the Center for Resourceful
Building Technologies in Missoula, Montana, a clearinghouse for
resource-efficient building materials and techniques. Phone (406) 549-
7678. Additional U.S. groups promoting alternatives are listed on pgs.
53-61 of the report cited in footnote 1, above.

[4] Books on adobe, rammed-earth and straw-bale construction are
available from Real Goods, 555 Leslie Street, Ukiah, Calif., 95482-
5507. Phone 1-800-762-7325. Fax: (707) 468-9486; foreign orders: (707)
468-9214. Additional U.S. groups promoting alternatives are listed on
pgs. 53-61 of the report cited in footnote 1, above.

Descriptor terms: forests; pulp and paper industry; lois gibbs; cchw;
rainforest action network; wood use reduction campaign; economic
development; dioxin; msw; incineration; shipping pallets; recycling;
mctoxics campaign; mcdonalds; indonesia; siberia; british columbia;
native people; honduras; roads; logging; automobiles; biodiversity;
uniform building code; adobe; rammed earth; straw bale houses; fires;
fire hazards; thermal insulation; paper; kenaf; hemp; agricultural
waste; china; india; mexico; australia; energy conservation;
corporations; democracy; center for resourceful building technologies;
building materials;