Wednesday, 6 January 2016

They Can Get It When It's Meat; Why Can't They Get It When It's Trees?

I was looking through some old writing of mine, as you do, and I found this little scribbling I wrote in 1998:

The recent hysteria-driven campaign to recycle more and more paper on the grounds that it's a virtuous tree-saving exercise is to me pretty evidently going to turn out to be not just incorrect, but the precise opposite of the truth. The proposition fails in its logic, which means in all likelihood future evidence will show it to be mistaken.

Here's why. Most wood used for the purpose of producing paper comes from trees planted and grown for the purpose of producing paper, in exactly the same way that farm animals are bred for the purpose of meat consumption. If you recycle paper in mass quantities you lower the need for as much tree-planting, which amounts to shifting the demand curve down and making price and quantity fall. This means that tree-planting and the land used for tree planting no longer hold the same value for wood production. The number of trees will diminish as a result of mass recycling, just as the number of farm animals bred will decrease if lots of people suddenly become vegetarians.

Almost everybody can get the logic when you talk about animals and vegetarians, yet so few people get it when you talk about trees and paper. Presumably this is because many people support recycling because it gives them an ethical buzz of virtuousness, and when people have that buzz it often makes them myopic towards the efficacy of the policy.

Seventeen years later, and with it now being evidential that paper recycling means fewer trees, the above seems quite prescient. It's always good to remind the people who claim to care about preservation of trees that if they really cared they should be against paper recycling, not for it. Understanding how prices work helps you understand that paper is cheap and that recycling is worse for trees and for consumption. Many trees are farmed for economic reasons - for making wood pulp for paper production - and in commercial terms they are planted for future sales, and plentifully so, which is why the logic is fairly easily translated into evidence.