Most of us are concerned about how climate change will affect our corners of the world, but we need to be thinking about our most vital natural resources: tropical forests.

Tropical and subtropical forests are the most biodiverse areas on the planet, and they even give us most of the oxygen we breathe.  These forests provide us with wood for fuel, paper, and building materials, and the plant life provides the world with a critical carbon sink.  Through photosynthesis, plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen and glucose.  Glucose acts as food for the plant, and the carbon molecules fuel the plant’s growth and eventually compose about 50 percent of its weight.   Essentially, you could think of every tree in the rainforest as a chunk of carbon that was removed from the atmosphere.

Clearly, plants are important, and we should start managing them sustainably because deforestation is out of control.

Tropical Ecoregions of the World

World Ecoregions; tropical and subtropical zones are highlighted in bright green.

The map above illustrates where tropical and subtropical ecosystems (highlighted in bright green) are located.  The rainforests located in these zones are being cleared and logged for agriculture  at alarming rates.

The primary cause of deforestation around the world is clearing land for agriculture.  As populations grow, there is more demand for food, and that food needs to be farmed somewhere.  Tropical climates are not only excellent for farming due to their extended growing seasons.  Agriculture earns money, and because most countries in the tropics have developing economies, there is more incentive for people to clear land and farm than there is to preserve forests.

Logging forests for the paper, pulp, and wood products industry is another main cause of deforestation.  This issue affects consumers directly, because they can choose responsibly sourced materials that do not contribute to forest destruction.  Consumers in the United States and other developed countries are in the best position to demand more sustainable forest products, because developed countries are the importers of materials harvested from tropical forests.  Using recycled or recyclable products, and products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, are good places to start.

TIMBER, PULP, & PAPER INDUSTRY:

A cleared area of rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon

 

The deforestation crisis in the tropics is not an issue isolated to those regions.  As sad as it is, deforestation is a lucrative business; exports of tropical timber amount to billions of dollars annually. This is driven by demand for industrial, paper, and wood products by developed countries.  Essentially, the purchasing habits of countries that import rainforest-sourced wood (and food products) fuel the economic incentive for the practice to continue.  This is not a simple problem, and it is not something that can be solved by recycling alone.  However, recycling does have some super advantages for manufacturers.  High on the list are the energy and carbon emission savings!

Once wood products are harvested from forests and exported for timber, pulp, and paper industries, there is a long and energy-intensive process necessary to transform these raw materials into finished products.  So much more energy is required to process these raw materials instead of recyclable feedstock, that the entire supply chain seems flawed.

Making paper from recycled materials requires nearly half the amount of energy it takes to manufacture from virgin pulp, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council(NRDC).  Most of the paper products we use daily can be made from recycled materials.  Office paper, cardboard, and even some building supplies can all be made from recycled material.  Not only is it very consumer- friendly to use recycled and sustainably sourced products, but money can be saved almost everywhere along the supply chain when manufacturers recycle.

A few key points from the NRDC include:

Replacing a ton of virgin fiber to make magazine stock paper with a ton of recycled fiber reduces:

  • net greenhouse gas emissions by 47 percent
  • particulate emissions by 28 percent
  • wastewater by 33 percent
  • solid waste by 54 percent
  • wood use by 100 percent

Forty cases of copy paper made from 100 percent postconsumer paper saves:

  • 24 trees
  • 7,000 gallons of water
  • 4,100 kilowatt hours of electricity
  • 60 pounds of air pollution

The most startling fact of all is the NRDC’s claim that,

EXPERTS PROJECT A 70 PERCENT INCREASE IN TROPICAL AND SUBTROPICAL TIMBER HARVESTING SPECIFICALLY FOR PAPERMAKING IN LESS THAN A DECADE. IN TROPICAL FORESTS, DEFORESTATION IS ALREADY ELIMINATING ONE ACRE OF FOREST EVERY SECOND.

A shift to recycled materials, energy efficiency, and sustainably-managed forest resources is clearly needed.

Re-foresting degraded and deforested areas of tropical regions can help remove carbon from our atmosphere, and ensure we can keep breathing that important oxygen.