Forest Products for a Sustainable Economy
Pauli, Gunter, Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy
Maximizing the use of materials from forest plantations while protecting environmental values can help build a sustainable forest industry economy.
Forests and plantations are evolving into a major source of wealth, trade, and jobs in the world economy. Traditionally, forests and plantations have been managed for specific cash crops, such as lumber, pulp, fruits, and firewood. Today, the list of forest products is growing at an exponential pace, and forest managers are discovering that biomass waste is a rich and renewable feedstock for the chemical industry. Forests and plantations are also efficient carbon sinks, capturing carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis and returning oxygen to the atmosphere. In the near future, forests and plantations will serve not only as sinks for the absorption of carbon dioxide but also as centers for sustainable economic development.
The market value of biomass was often overlooked in the past when research and development focused almost single-mindedly on increasing the yield for a particular cash crop. Researchers sought ways to produce more vegetable oil,
coffee, or cellulose fiber from a given parcel of land. This tight focus on yields and productivity stimulated the use of fertilizers, pesticides, seed and species selection, and genetic engineering, which resulted in huge gains in yield. Biodiversity suffered, however, and too many varieties were lost in this drive toward higher yields.
While these techniques and technologies succeeded dramatically, they nevertheless have reached or are rapidly reaching their productive limits. In fact, while scientists insist that yields can increase modestly in the future, they concede that it is unlikely we will ever again witness yield improvements like those that accompanied the green revolution. 
Forests and plantations, like other businesses, need to increase productivity and economic sustainability. For many forest managers, the key to achieving these goals involves a reassessment of biomass and waste products produced by the forest industry.
The palm oil plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil, for example, generate an estimated 200 million tons of biomass a year, while the plantations in Tanzania that grow sisal--a plant used to make rope--generate over 10 million tons of biomass. Most of this biomass, however, goes unused. Few plantation owners put a commercial value on more than about 10 percent of the biomass they produce. And in forests logged for cellulose--a wood product used in manufacturing paper, packaging, and construction materials--only 30 percent of the cellulose from hardwoods is extracted and only 20 percent from softwoods is extracted. Much of what remains is discarded or incinerated, thus contributing to carbon dioxide emissions. By any standard, this reflects poor productivity, as well as environmental indifference.
Forest and plantation managers, of course, do not discard or burn all biomass waste materials. Many use the waste as soil enrichment or fertilizer. Typically, however, the materials remaining after the primary crop is harvested are grossly undervalued. In fact, these residual materials are often not valued at all. Any monies paid for the leftovers rarely cover even the cost of collecting the material. Moreover, it is often cheaper to have someone haul these waste materials away than it is to plow them back into the soil as soil enrichment. The fact is, the bulk of these materials will be used only if they generate reasonable income from any value added in getting them ready for sale.
The waste volumes that forest plantations have to deal with are mind boggling. An oil palm plantation generates on average 10 tons of waste per acre per year (25 tons per hectare), so that a 100,000-acre (40,000-hectare) plantation.-- which is not unusual in Indonesia--has to contend with 1 million tons of plant wastes a year. …