Breathe easier by buying alternative paper products

While the Indonesian palm oil industry is taking much of the heat for the region's severe haze situation ("United front needed on sustainable palm oil" by Ms Maria Loh Mun Foong; last Saturday), paper is proving to be a substantial contributor to the problem - and as deserving of the same attention - as well ("Indonesia's biggest paper firm back in the spotlight"; Sunday).

Our dependency on wood is as disturbing as how it is supplied to us; according to research, 27,000 trees are cut down every day to produce enough toilet paper to wrap around the earth's Equator 118 times.

The overwhelming demand for wood can be lowered by empowering consumers with eco-friendly paper product options. Viable, more sustainable and arguably better-quality alternatives to conventional pulp and paper do exist.

For example, many third-party studies on alternative sources for the tissue paper sector consistently point to bamboo as the best possible long-term alternative to match the growing future demand for hygiene paper products as the world population increases.

Bamboo plantations do not require the same kind of land as wood pulp producers use, and can also regrow quickly and effortlessly without the need for slash-and-burn land clearing.

Despite wanting to respond to the sustainability research, established paper product manufacturers have not been able to go wood-free as quickly as needed, as it would mean a drastic change to their deeply entrenched business fundamentals.

Sustainable, eco-friendly paper products are not necessarily more expensive or less accessible compared with conventional supermarket equivalents. There are companies here which produce alternative fibre paper products at mainstream prices, and these are stocked at major supermarkets.

If consumers are able to make more informed purchasing decisions, the big players will have no choice but to take drastic measures to change their business practices to salvage their brand reputation.

This way, the land that has otherwise been used and ravaged by wood pulp producers can be put to better - and healthier - use, like livestock or crop farming, if not reforestation and conservation.

Exercising our consumer sovereignty may really save the world.

David Ward

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2015, with the headline 'Breathe easier by buying alternative paper products'. Print Edition | Subscribe