Mail, Trees & Common Sense
Many people are concerned with the preservation of forest land and with good reason: Forests are beautiful, they produce vast quantities of oxygen, they are home to innumerable animals and they are part of our heritage.
There's no question that mail is regarded as a paper-based product, and so it's fair to ask: How does the use of mail impact our forests?
To answer this question let's go back to Adam Smith, the father of economics. In 1776 Smith said we are each guided by "the invisible hand of self-interest." In other words, we each try to do the things that are best for us.
Now, imagine that you were the president of a paper company. Would you buy expensive wood or inexpensive wood to make paper? You would surely buy the least expensive wood possible -- in fact, if it was possible you would buy no wood at all, you would recycle old paper to make new paper.
In other words, timber is priced on the basis of its highest and best use. The most expensive woods are used for such purposes as building furniture and home construction. For a paper company, it makes no sense to bid for such timber.
What does make sense is to literally grow wood -- to create tree farms where land can be seeded with the best stock, harvested years later and then re-planted. It's a huge investment, but one that makes the most financial and ecological sense.
The numbers bear out such common-sense thinking:
The Environmental Protection Agency says that in 2005 the United States produced 5.830 million tons of advertising mail. This sounds like a lot of mail, but consider that we are a nation with more than 300 million people as well as millions of shops, stores and work sites -- all of which receive mail. In addition, there are two important points to be made:
First, 2.09 million tons was recycled, a recovery rate of 35.8%. (See: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2005, EPA, page 37)
Second, the mail which is not recovered is just a tiny part of the national waste stream.
"Some people assume that “municipal solid waste” must include everything that is landfilled in Subtitle D landfills," says the EPA. In fact, the EPA explains that contrary to common belief "it has been common practice to landfill wastes such as municipal sludges, nonhazardous industrial wastes, residue from automobile salvage operations, and construction and demolition debris along with MSW." (See: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2005, EPA, page 25)
How much Subtitle D Waste is there? The EPA says we produce at least 13 billion tons of non-hazardous Subtitle D waste, some of which -- in addition to MSW -- winds up in landfills.
We also have -- before recovery -- 5.8 million tons of advertising mail. In the worst case, advertising mail thus represents 0.000448 of the waste stream -- about 4/10,000ths. After recycling, of course, the percentage is even lower.
Can we recycle more of the mail we produce? The answer is that if communities elect to do so, absolutely. "There were about 8,550 curbside recycling programs in the United States in 2005," according to the EPA. These neighborhood pick-up programs can be readily expanded to include not only newspapers but other household paper such as mail, cartons and containers. (See: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2005, EPA, page 13)
When it comes to forest lands, says The New York Times, "the acreage is essentially the same as it was a century ago, and there is over 30 percent more wood volume per acre than in 1952." (See: Family Matters, Generational Shifts Loom for Big Tracks of American Woods, June 14, 2007)
One reason for the preservation of so much forest land is that tree farms have proven to be enormously successful:
"Deforestation in the United States, rampant in the 19th century has stopped," says The New York Times. "Forested acreage of the country began rising in the 20th century, and is still rising. Why? Wood is no longer a primary fuel, while high-yield agriculture allowed millions of acres to be retired from farming and returned to trees." (See: "There Goes the Neighborhood," January 30, 2005)
- In 1957 the U.S. had 516 billion cubic feet of trees for growing stock. (See: 2003 National Report on Sustainable Forests, U.S. Forest Service, page 3)
- In 1997, the volume of trees for growing stock had increased 36 percent to 856 billion cubic square feet. (See: 2003 National Report on Sustainable Forests, U.S. Forest Service, page 3)
- In 2007, the U.S. had 925 billion cubic feet of growing stock, 79 percent more than in 1957 and 9.6 percent than in 1997. (See: Forest Inventory and Analysis RPA Assessment tables, U.S. Forest Service, preliminary study, Table 17, May, 2007)
It is estimated, says the U.S. Forest Service, that at the beginning of European settlement in 1630 "the area of forest land that would become the United States was 1,045 million acres or about 46 percent of the total land area. By 1907, the area of forest land had declined to an estimated 759 million acres or 34 percent of the total land area. Forest area has been relatively stable since 1907. In 1997, 747 million acres -- or 33 percent of the total land area of the United States -- was in forest land. Today’s forest land area amounts to about 70 percent of the area that was forested in 1630. Since 1630, about 297 million acres of forest land have been converted to other uses—mainly agricultural. More than 75 percent of the net conversion to other uses occurred in the 19th century." (See: U.S Forest Facts and Historical Trends, U.S. Forest Service, page 3)
"The U.S. Agriculture Department," according to ABC News, "says America has 749 million acres of forestland. In 1920, we had 735 million acres of forest. We have more forest now. How can that be? One reason is technology that allows us to grow five times more food per acre -- so we need less farmland. Lots of what once was farmland has reverted to forest."
"Forest land," reports The New York Times, "hasn't been shrinking at all -- it's been fairly stable since 1920 and has actually grown in the last decade." (See: "Cheer Up, Earth Day Is Over," April 23, 2006)
In fact, figures from the U.S. Forest Service confirm media reports: In May 2007 the Service estimated that the total amount of forest land in the U.S. amounted to 749,758 acres. To give perspective, the total land mass of the U.S. amounts to 2,263,952 acres. In effect, despite a vastly-larger population than in the past, one-third of the country is actually covered by forest land. (See: Forest Inventory and Analysis RPA Assessment tables, U.S. Forest Service, preliminary study, Table 1, May, 2007)
So the next time you hear someone explain with great scientific certainty that "mail hurts our forests," ask: Why would it make any sense to use valuable trees for paper when far-cheaper alternatives are easily available? And why do we have more trees and more forest land than 50 years ago?