Observant of the trend for Europeans to show keen interest in all things green, Financial Times has just introduced us to a world-scale female Tree Hugging entrepreneur, Ms. Zhang Yin, who is described in the article as "worth an estimated $3.4bn." Remarkably, Ms Zhang, after starting up Nine Dragons Paper just a few years ago, has become "the world's richest self-made woman, surpassing US talk show host Oprah Winfrey and J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter author". Now here's the "kicker" as we say in the US. "Ms Zhang's listed company, of which she owns 72 per cent, buys scrap paper from the US and processes it in China for sale". Incredible in so many ways. North-American pulp producers clear cut Boreal and Piedmont forests to produce virgin fiber for paper making, hitting, at best, a recycled content in the 10 to 20 percent range in final products. A good part of your paper recycle bin contents, then, goes to China, where the Boreal gets "hugged" into products we might buy back. The other possible market scenario (we don't know which market view is correct) is that China, having devastated native forests and failed to create a sustainable forestry program, has forced its paper industry to scavange what they can, pulliing North America into a scrap cellulose depletion mode to serve non-American markets. Hold your temper now. The "real" scenario, whichever that might be, is driven by other less visible forces that you, our readers, are partly responsible for. US hardcopy magazine and newspaper subscriptions are way down from historical per-capita rates, and dropping. The mere fact that you are reading about this on TreeHugger instead of in the Financial Times is evidence enough of that 'future driver'. Increased reliance on e-mail has lessened demand for paper as well. As the US population ages, subscription budgets are squeezed, leaving 'boomers' in the library periodicals room, or on-line. Consequently, the return on capital employed (ROCE) offered by investment in paper making in general and recycling in particular is considered low. Thus, it is left to the Ms Zhangs' of the world to make US scrap paper into food for print,... or boxes for Wal-Mart. Will increased computer access in China help preserve American Boreal Forests? Or will it just drive the waste to the next highest bidder? What happens when Bill Clinton's Tree Hugger friends out-bid Nine Dragons for the waste paper, planning to use it as feedstock to make ethanol for fuel? These, and so many other questions, hang unanswered. The possibilities make my head hurt.
Photo Credit: The Standard