Posts Tagged ‘recycling’

paper recycling and trees

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

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 Gérard 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.

trees and forests

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

Zoologist Bernd Heinrich  today focuses on biofuels, but his words apply equally to Joseph Heath’s call for “a simple, cogent line of reasoning that defends the practice [of paper recycling] against the ‘economic’ objection”.

Trees are often called a “carbon sink” — implying that they will sop up carbon from the atmosphere for all eternity. This is not true: the carbon they take up when they are alive is released after they die, whether from natural causes or by the hand of man. The only true solution to achieving global “carbon balance” is to leave the fossil carbon where it is — underground.


[The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 does not provide] carbon-reduction credits for saving existing forests. Since planting new trees does get one credits, Kyoto actually created a rationale for clear-cutting old growth.

This is horrifying. The world’s forests are a key to our survival, and that of millions of other species. Not only are they critical to providing us with building material, paper, food, recreation and oxygen, they also ground us spiritually and connect us to our primal past. Never before in earth’s history have our forests been under such attack. And the global-warming folks at Copenhagen seem oblivious, buying into the corporate view of forests as an exploitable resource.

Bernd Heinrich, “Clear-Cutting the Truth About Trees”, New York Times, 20 December 2009.

Ewald Rametsteiner’s comments on my 20 August 2009 recycling post make more sense to me now that I have read this column.

Professor Heinrich lives in a 300-acre (120 hectare) Vermont forest. He is author of numerous books, including The Trees in My Forest (Harper, 1997) and Summer World: A Season of Bounty (Ecco, 2009).

paper recycling can be bad for the planet

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The standard reflex on the left when confronted with an economic question is to change the topic. Consider, for example, the economic argument against paper recycling. People say that recycling is a way of “saving trees,” yet, in practice, it has exactly the opposite effect. 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. “Old growth” timber is not used for pulp and paper—the trees that go into making our paper are a cash crop, just like wheat and corn. So one way to increase the number of trees being planted is for us to consume more paper. Furthermore, if we dumped used paper down an old mineshaft, rather than recycling it, we would in effect be engaged in carbon sequestration: taking carbon out of the atmosphere and burying it in the ground. This is exactly what we need to be doing in order to combat global warming. So recycling paper would appear to be bad for the planet, on numerous levels. Aluminum recycling makes sense (as suggested by the fact that it is profitable). But why paper recycling?

It’s possible that there is a coherent response to this argument, but I’ve never seen one. Most environmentalists focus on how recycling reduces deforestation in the short term but ignore the long-term consequences of diminishing the incentive to reforest. More often people just change the topic, decrying how tree farming promotes monoculture, criticizing logging practices, or complaining about the wastefulness of consumer society. What is conspicuously lacking is a simple, cogent line of reasoning that defends the practice against the “economic” objection. Again, this isn’t to say there is no argument, just that I’ve never heard it. What I have heard is a whole host of increasingly ingenious ways of changing the subject.

Joseph Heath, Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism (HarperCollins, Toronto, 2009), p. 6.

Readers, do you have a coherent response to this argument? I don’t, so if one occurs to you, please post a comment.

Philosopher Joseph Heath (1967-) is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto. He freely admits “I’m not an economist”, having “essentially no formal training in the subject. I did take the usual Economics 101 course as an undergraduate, but I only went to class a couple of times. The professor got on my nerves. …. Since then, I’ve just been reading on my own. I also have no mathematics beyond high school. I did learn calculus, but I can’t remember how to do it. I mention this not to undermine anyone’s confidence in the arguments that follow, but merely to show that the barriers to economic literacy re not as great as they sometimes made out to be.”

I don’t know whether it is because—or in spite of—Heath’s lack of formal training, but this is one of the best economics books I have read in years. I recommend it to everyone, but especially to those the left who might benefit from learning more about the capitalist system they profess to despise. Heath’s book is a joy to read and covers many topics. I have quibbles with parts of the text, but these are minor compared to those I have with the average economics book written by an untrained journalist. Heath has clearly made an effort to understand what economists are trying to say. I especially liked his devastating criticism of libertarian ideology, on pages 24-43.

A US edition is forthcoming next year (2010), but you don’t have to wait for it, as the hardcover Canadian edition is available now at