WE ALL know by now that modern industrial societies depend on a constant supply of energy for their smooth running. But few of us yet realise that there is another, more prosaic, but equally vital resource upon which our society is just as dependent. Paper is such a commonplace part of our lives that it is easy not to question its ready availability. Yet imagine the difficulty of maintaining a complex society without paper for administration and education, for communication, for packaging and for newspapers.
The art of making paper has been known for nearly 2,000 years since its discovery by Tsai Lun in AD 105. Making paper involves breaking down a suitable raw material, plant matter, rags or waste paper, in water to release cellulose fibres which are deposited as a closely woven network on a sieve. This basic process has remained the same since papermaking was discovered and it is followed by all papermakers whether they produce small quantities of hand-made papers or operate large mills with an annual capacity of tens of thousands of tonnes.
In Britain we consume 8.7 million tonnes of paper and cardboard each year. This means cutting down about 87 million trees a Year to produce the necessary wood pulp, a forest over half the size of Wales. Most of the paper we use in Britain is either imported or made from imported raw materials as Britain is the least forested country in Europe. The result is that we spend 11,000 million a year on imports, as much as we earn from the export of cars and lorries. Throughout the world wood is becoming increasingly hard to come by as demand for timber rises and the remaining virgin forests are cut down. Bad management of forests in earlier times is compounding this problem since even the fastest growing trees take from 20-40 years to mature. Mistakes have taken a long time to overco m e. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations has predicted a world shortfall of paper and pulp by 1980 and in this situation countries like Britain without indigeneous raw materials will be hardest hit.
Yet, of the 8.7 million tonnes of paper we use each veikr we only keep about 2 million tonnes. This 6 million tonnes of waste paper represents a huge untapped resource which, if properly used, could help to reduce import costs, lessen the local authorities' waste disposal problems and reduce the environmental impact of our use of paper.
Because previous cycles of 'boom and bust' in the demand for waste paper have led to wildly fluctuating prices many local authorities have become disenchanted with waste paper collection. Thus we now find ourselves in the absurd situation of not only having to import paper and wood pulp, but of also having to import waste paper from abroad because we no longer have the collection services to make use of some of the 6 million tonne i we throw away.
This situation does however present voluntary organisations with a tremendous opportunity to supplement their funds by collecting and selling waste paper. All over the country scout troops and school football teams are paying for their equipment from the proceeds of waste paper collections. With the price of waste paper rising and likely to go on doing so for some time, now is the right moment for parishes whose church needs redecorating or new altar linen or a stained glass window to start their collections.
Advice on how to run a paper collection can be obtained from a free pamphlet shortly to be published by the government's Waste Management Advisory Council or from your nearest Friends of the Earth group*. Local paper merchants and paper mills (look in the Yellow Pages) are also a good source of advice and help for potential collecting organisation.
* The address can be obtained from 9 Poland Street.