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Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2006 12:57 am

Rethinking paper

Bamboo cultivation destroys sensitive ecosystems

Dear “Earth Talk”: Is bamboo really an environmentally friendly alternative to wood for making paper? If so, why are we still cutting down trees to keep our copiers and printers humming? — Ali Forte, by e-mail

Bamboo is a fast-growing and renewable resource, and it has long been used throughout Asia as a raw material for many goods, including paper. With North America’s supply of forests now dwindling, bamboo is starting to look like a viable alternative to wood pulp to make paper for Western consumption. It has a consistency similar to that wood pulp, and most existing paper mills can adapt to it with existing infrastructure.

On the other hand, clearing forests to establish bamboo plantations across the globe hardly makes environmental sense. Aaron Lehmer of ReThink Paper, a project of Earth Island Institute, calls the rapid expansion of bamboo plantations in Southeast Asia “alarming” and says that it is “setting up a status quo whereby natural forests are increasingly being developed” for bamboo cultivation for paper.

Most of this bamboo is feeding paper mills in China and India, says Lehmer, but increasing demand from North America and Europe could deplete existing supplies and force Southeast Asian producers to push deeper into the forests. This would deplete primary habitat for hundreds of threatened species of birds, pandas, reptiles, and amphibians. “Since there are no international standards or certification mechanisms in place for bamboo, neither paper producers nor consumers have any way of knowing whether the bamboo they purchase is coming from endangered ecosystems,” he adds.

According to the World Bamboo Organization, a trade group, 12 million acres of bamboo reserves exist across Asia today. If demand for bamboo were to increase, Lehmer says, surely the environment in these areas would suffer. Indeed, environmentalists in India are already crying foul over government-subsidized bamboo extraction from that country’s supposedly protected forests, including the world-renowned Nagarjunasagar Tiger Reserve, one of the last suitable habitats in the world for the big endangered cats.

ReThink Paper would rather see North American paper producers convert existing mills to process locally generated agricultural waste, such as wheat or rice straw. These sources are usually plentiful and inexpensive, and paper companies could reap significant financial benefit getting raw material from local farmers eager to offload otherwise unmarketable “biomass” waste. This makes environmental sense, too, says Lehmer, compared with importing bamboo chips from far away on planes, trains, ships, and trucks that emit tons of climate-altering carbon dioxide en route.

The debate over papermaking reminds us that modern society has yet to go “paperless,” as many predicted we would — but our inability to achieve that goal as yet doesn’t make efforts to cut back worthless. Everyone can do his or her part at home, school and office to reduce paper usage, even if it’s only one sheet at a time.

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