An environmental economics professor of mine posits that if you want to preserve forests, you should stop recycling paper. The logic goes that the production of paper is what maintains the management of those places you now call forests and without it, they’d become tomorrow’s suburbs. (hmmm, that could be a good name for something down the road) Here are a couple more developed arguments about this topic (Recycling is Garbage, Recycling, Can it be wrong when it feels so right?, How about this recycling thing?).
So what about the other uses of trees. Should we be replacing a staple building material, wood, with a non-renewable? Like that of paper recycling, the surface of the argument is simple and pushes toward reducing the use of virgin material in producing goods so that trees do not have to be cut down. This goes for paper, telephone poles, palettes, and even the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore. Technology steps in to figure out ways to reuse material or find/create substitutes. But, like in the last post about this topic, it is clear that we are not really finding substitutes for trees but are trying to design alternatives for very specific functions of a tree, be they carbon dioxide absorption or lumber for structural supports. Like the work searching for the next tree-like carbon sinks, recent news on the progress toward finding a replacement for wood raises more questions for me about whether we’re going about all this in the right way.
The scant data available suggest that ‘plastic wood’ — typically a composite of waste wood and plastic — exacts a higher climate-change cost than natural wood, which has the benefit of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as it grows. One 2011 study, funded by the timber industry but independently peer-reviewed, found that the greenhouse-gas emissions from the manufacture of plastic wood are nearly three times higher than those from the production of chemically treated cedar1.