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Woody Harrelson Says Making Paper from Trees Is ‘Barbaric’ — Is It?

In the pulp and paper industry there appears to be a renewed interest in “alternative fibers” for use in paper.  One recent article on this subject included a photo of Woody Harrelson (actor) with a caption that proclaimed “making paper from trees is barbaric.”  With respect to Mr. Harrelson, I believe he has either been misquoted or is misinformed. To help advance this dialog I want to first clarify some terminology.

The term “tree free” paper is used for two different categories of products: synthetic “papers” and  real papers made from sources other than trees.

On the one hand we have synthetic materials that are not made of fibers at all.  They are printing substrates that look like paper – they are thin and white.  And in some ways act like paper – they are flexible and you can print on them.  But in most cases this group of products is actually pigmented polymer films or non-woven materials.  In other words, they are not paper at all – they are made of plastic (the vast majority of which is derived from fossil fuels).  In some applications (e.g. waterproof maps or outdoor signage) these might be the ideal substrates, but to call them paper products is somewhat confusing to say the least.

Beyond the synthetics, there are fibers not derived from trees that can be used to make paper.   Generally speaking the alternative fiber category includes sources that are grown for fiber (like cotton or bamboo).  There are also tree free sources that are derived as by-products from other processes – typically agricultural residues.  For example bagasse is a by-product of sugar cane processing – and Mr. Harrelson’s passion reportedly lies in pursuing paper that is “currently made in India with 80 per cent waste wheat straw and 20 per cent wood fibers”.

In both cases – synthetics and alternative fibers – they are indeed “tree free” products, but I have yet to see any evidence that these products may have any environmental benefits over using wood.  On the contrary –  the evidence I have seen leads me to conclude quite the opposite.

There are many arguments to be made about the values and benefits of sustainably managed forests.  If anyone has Mr. Harrelson’s contact information, please send him a link to our eQ Journal Volume 4. And I would be delighted to speak to him about efforts aimed at salvaging wood after a major wind event in the Lake States.  Of course, beyond the forest, one must take a look at the environmental impacts associated with the manufacturing process.

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16 thoughts on “Woody Harrelson Says Making Paper from Trees Is ‘Barbaric’ — Is It?

  1. Perhaps Woody Harrelson needs to read about how paper is manufactured. Most of the fiber today comes from managed plantations. Trees are planted in rows and harvested every 6 to 16 years depending on species. Trees either reproduce by sprouting or seedlings are replanted to repeat the cycle. The only difference between farming trees or farming corn is the length it takes to harvest. He also needs to know there are more trees on the planet than 100 years ago. The only exception involves Asia, Pulp & Paper and their harvesting rain forests. One day they say they are no longer harvesting trees from rain forests and two weeks later Green Peace catching them in the act of harvesting rain forest trees.

  2. McDonough puts it well..

    Imagine this as a design assignment, it should sequester carbon, produce oxygen, provide habitat for vast ecology, produce complex sugars, change color with the seasons and self replicate. Now here’s an idea let’s chop that down and write on it.

    It is barbaric and the paper industry is dragging their heels. Hemp makes better pulp for paper, does it faster, while feeding the soil at the same time. Additionally hemp also gives humanity hemp oil, one the healthiest natural oils on the planet.

    My brother, Stuart Gordon, developed a system that allowed for paper packaging to have the design tolerances of plastic. Virtually any pulp could be used, shaped into 3d shapes, printed on (in a dome fresco fashion) all in a one step process. The entire assembly fits into a cargo container. Big companies such as Diageo and Gillette want to buy his products, but the big paper companies are sitting in the middle blocking everything.

    Using trees for paper, 90% of which is thrown away in the space of a week is barbaric, immoral, insane and financially speaking unjustifiable.

  3. Manufacturing film stock and electronic components from non renewable minerals and petroleum products to disseminate poor, violent and even filthy “entertainment” is true “barbarity” while also being wasteful..

  4. Hopefully, “Professor” Harrelson will show the proper respect and forego all use of toilet paper up until the time that alternatives are available

  5. Has anyone noticed…we are talking about trees and paper and the hollywood star involved is named “Woody”!!!!

    T.Brady, you are showing your age! They don’t use film for movies anymore, it is all digital. By the way, do you own a car, or better yet a new(er) car? Suggestion, don’t go to movies or watch movies, ever!

    CCS, TP comes from recycled paper, not trees. And my bet is Woody uses newspaper.

    Trees should not be used for writing paper given our digital age and plus, we are a little smarter today. Hemp is a perfect alternative. That stuff grows like weeds and can grow almost anywhere. The side benefits are immeasurable. And it is durable as hell! Hemp is what the majority of sailing ropes were made of back when ships rules the planet. And this is exactly why corporations have not embraced hemp. There is no money in hemp, well, there is today…we are smarter!
    And although the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written on parchment paper, copies in the day were printed on hemp paper. Trees were treasured.

  6. I am confused by the comment that 90% of paper is “thrown away” within a week. I offer a few facts for consideration:
    Recycling rates in the US have never been higher. While we still have room for improvement, paper recovery for recyling reached 66.8% in 2011 – much higher than any other basic material (metal, plastic or glass). The paper industry has a goal of achieving 70% and is well on track. There are some grades (like toilet paper) that will never be recycled and others that are difficult to recycle (e.g. where there has been food contact or other contamination) so the practical limit for maximum recovery is often debated. But there is a lot of work underway to find alternatives for recycling (e.g. composting). I welcome readers thoughts on what they think may be achievable.
    Paperboard and corrugated containers consume the greatest amounts of recycled fiber. Tissue and towel markets consume roughly 8% of what is recovered in the US and indeed some tissue grades are made with high levels of recycled fiber – a great use of recovered paper. Visit paperrecyles.org for more statistics. Or see the EPA’s fast facts on municipal solid waste.
    I feel compelled to point out that recycled fiber comes from paper – which comes primarily from trees.
    Trees should be treasured. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be harvested responsibly. We need to think about the health of the forests and blance society’s demands for wood and paper products. I encourage readers to learn more about forest management by exploring our eQ Journal volume 4 – the link is available in the article above.

  7. Here is a link to the life cycle study by Offsetters that your article mentions you had not seen Laura: http://www.prairiepaper.com/lcs.shtml Also, do you have further reading I could look into on your statement, “But with non-wood fibers, because of the composition of reedy plants the chemical recovery process cannot be closed the same way. It is possible to make pulp from these sources, but the environmental impact is greater.”

  8. Hi Joshua,
    I offered the evidence that the Chinese governments are reacting to the offending mills without chemical recovery (by shutting them down) but didn’t explain the science. There are many technical articles – and chapters in text books – that have been written about the challenges related to non-wood fibers. It is such an intriguing concept that it is studied routinely.
    The crux of the problem is silica (use that as a search term). High levels of silica in non-wood plants create glass- like deposits in chemical recovery process equipment rendering it inoperable. Mechanical pulping yields fiber of poor quality and chemical pulping systems cannot be “closed”.
    I believe there is a much greater future for agricultural residues and other non-wood fibers in energy production than for use as a paper fiber. Meanwhile, North American forests are healthy and abundant – and the fiber properties lend to an amazing gamut of paper products. The key to sustainable use relies in good forest management. And clean production. And eliminating wasteful consumption. And recycling.

  9. As the saying goes ” A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing” and Woody’s statement just reinforces the meaning behind this statement. It is unfortunate that he used the term “Barbaric” to describe paper made from trees when the paper he is endorsing contains 20% tree fiber. Without tree fiber, the paper he is endorsing could not be made, so does that make the paper he is endorsing “Barbaric” as well?

    The demand for paper is such that paper made from “tree free fiber” will not meet the need and the key to preserving this natural resource is to ensure that tree fiber that is used to make paper and other wood products is sourced from sustainably managed lands. There are a multitude of benefits that are derived from the responsible and sustainable management of trees and this practice needs to be encouraged by using such trees and not discouraged by abandoning the use of trees.

  10. Destroying forests and creating a misleading eco-label (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) to call it “green” is barbaric…and greenwashing.

  11. “Barbaric”? Is it less barbaric to burn the marijuana plants he inhales? His pot just goes up in smoke. At least paper has a legitimate use and can be recycled. Sorry, I just can’t take him seriously.

  12. Actually some non-woven products are actually made from paper based products, where the cellulose is stripped out of the fibres. As has been been said in many communications previously. Papers we recieve in the western world come from well managed forests, where for every tree cut down 3 to 4 trees are replanted. Some of these so called “Eco high profile warriors” need to get their facts straight before going public

  13. Woody and others are great at running their mouth and telling others how to live. Let’s see making paper out of a sustainable resource…. last time I checked that does fix carbon on the stump. I wonder what kind of carbon foot print Woody’s movies and TV programming made and how he “off set ” his carbon footprint. Ooooh yeah…. he didn’t. He just runs his mouth like so many from Hollywood.

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