paper recycling and trees

Two years ago TdJ posted a statement of University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Heath with the title “Paper recycling can be bad for the planet“. Heath’s argument in essence was:

Why are there so many cows in the world? Because people eat cows. Not only that, but the number of cows in the world is a precise function of the number that are eaten. If people decided to eat less beef, there would be fewer cows. Yet the same is true of trees.

In the current issue of the Canadian Journal of Economics, two economists from the University of Montreal reach the same conclusion, with a sophisticated model that embodies precisely the same reasoning. Here is the abstract of their paper:

Interest in recycling of forest products has grown in recent years, one of the goals being to conserve trees or possibly increase their number to compensate for positive externalities generated by the forest and neglected by the market. This paper explores the issue as to whether recycling is an appropriate measure to attain such a goal. We do this by considering the problem of the private owner of an area of land, who, acting as a price taker, decides how to allocate his land over time between forestry and some other use, and at what age to harvest the forest area chosen. Once the forest is cut, he makes a new land allocation decision and replants. He does so indefinitely, in a Faustmann-like framework. The wood from the harvest is transformed into a final product that is partly recycled into a substitute for the virgin wood, so that past output affects the current price. We show that in such a context, increasing the rate of recycling will result in less area being devoted to forestry. It will also have the effect of increasing the harvest age of the forest, as long as the planting cost is positive. The net effect on the flow of virgin wood being harvested to supply the market will as a result be ambiguous. An important point, however, is that recycling will result in fewer trees in the long run, not more. It would therefore be best to resort to other means if the goal is to conserve the area devoted to forestry.

Didier Tatoutchoup and GĂ©rard Gaudet, “The impact of recycling on the long-run forestry“, Canadian Journal of Economics 44:3 (August 2011), pp. 804-813.

The link is to an earlier version of the paper, which has a slightly different title: “The Impact of Recycling on the Long-Run Stock of Trees”.

For the moment, I continue to toss all old paper into designated recycling bins, but should reconsider this action, given its negative effect on the number of trees, hence positive effect on greenhouse gases.

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