When it Comes to Tree-Free Paper, Don't be Bamboozled

In a world where industrial logging is ravaging our last pristine forest ecosystems, it's refreshing when a major company looks beyond the status quo and explores nonwood fibers as part of its overall business strategy. Fox River did just that by recently introducing a 100-percent bamboo text and writing line, Rubicon, which greatly popularized the tree-free paper concept.But Rubicon falls far short of Fox River's stated environmental claims. The Thailand-based Phoenix Pulp & Paper Company, currently the sole supplier of Fox River's bamboo pulp, has come under fire for its impacts on the Nam Phong River watershed.Conceived as a means to boost industrial development in Thailand's poorest, northeast region, the Phoenix mill was established in 1975 as a major pulper of kenaf (a woody annual native to Africa and the Middle East, now grown in several countries, including the US). After farmers began abandoning kenaf for more lucrative crops, Phoenix pursued an alternate scheme to ensure a sufficient supply of raw material for its massive pulping facility. Beginning in 1988, with funding from the US Agency for International Development and the Thai government, the company embarked on a major project to select a fast-growing bamboo variety for eventual planting on lands northwest of the Phoenix mill.Phoenix eventually decided on Dendrocalamus asper, a bamboo variety native to southern China, and enlisted the Thai government to help carry out its plan. According to Karl Bareis, coordinator of the International Bamboo Association, over 100,000 acres of the Royal Forest were cleared to make room for the bamboo plantations. Military troops led local peoples in planting bamboo plots, and many of the area's subsistence farmers subsequently were displaced, reducing the original population from 46,000 to only 12,000.Over time, Phoenix established contractual relationships with regional farmers, many of whom became dependent on selling bamboo poles for their livelihood. In 1994, tens of thousands of acres of plantation bamboo began to flower, rendering the plants economically useless and causing an estimated $130 million in losses that affected thousands of farmsteads. Despite this incident, which bamboo experts attribute to the plant's inherently unpredictable behavior, Phoenix has managed to maintain an annual bamboo pulp production level approaching 100,000 tons.In promoting Rubicon, Fox River has issued a number of green marketing claims designed to appeal to a significant slice of the ecological paper market. Foremost among these is the claim that "no effluent -- no matter how clean -- is discharged into nearby lakes and streams." Fox River's Rubicon literature also asserts that all the treated effluent from the Phoenix mill is "reused to irrigate surrounding bamboo and other farms."According to articles published in the Bangkok Post and Thailand's The Nation, however, Phoenix has been unable to safely dispose of its enormous wastewater output, and has released much of it into nearby waterways. Last September, Phoenix was cited by Thailand's Northeastern Region Environmental Office for releasing contaminated effluent into the Nam Phong River in violation of a government-issued zero-discharge rule. This sparked protest from nearby villagers who saw their farmlands destroyed by chlorinated overflow along the river's banks.The Elemental Chlorine-Free (ECF) process employed by Phoenix, while touted as a safe and clean bleaching technique, has failed to remove many harmful impurities from the effluent. While the ECF process does not use pure chlorine, it still employs chlorine dioxide as a bleaching agent, which releases chlorinated byproducts into the wastewater.In an attempt to accommodate its excess wastewater production -- estimated at 6 million gallons per day -- Phoenix instituted "Project Green," a scheme to irrigate nearby eucalyptus plantations with treated wastewater. According to bamboo expert and community development consultant Milo Clark, the amount of Phoenix's effluent far exceeds that which can be absorbed safely by surrounding farmlands. "No way can this shallow water table, sandy soil and relatively flat land take that much water É without overflowing into canals or swamps or draining into the groundwater," Clark said.Indeed, that is exactly what has happened. According to Akkanit Pongbhai of the Nam Phong River Recovery Project, soils adjoining Project Green areas have turned acidic from wastewater overflow. Hundreds of local villagers filed complaints against Phoenix in 1995 and 1996, resulting in out-of-court settlements totaling around 2 million baht (about $66,666).Another key claim by Fox River is that the Thai bamboo plantations pose no threat to the endangered giant panda bears of southern China. It is true that their threatened habitat leis far to the north of Thailand in China's Yunan province. But the company's use of bamboo establishes a powerful precedent for harvesting it for paper production and poses real threats to naturally existing areas throughout the region.Already, over 150,000 acres of natural bamboo groves have been harvested by major Vietnamese pulping companies, and similar operations ;are also underway in India, China, the Philippines and Indonesia. As bamboo becomes more valuable in the global marketplace, bamboo ecosystems become all the more attractive to industrial developers.Given the many problems stemming from the Phoenix operation, ReThink Paper advises consumers to avoid purchasing Rubicon. With hundreds of millions of tons of excess agricultural residues and fiber crops like kenaf produced domestically each year, it simply doesn't make sense to ship bamboo pulp across the world to supply our paper needs.

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