Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Environmental Black Holes – Part II

Last year, my daughter brought a wooden chest of drawers, which she thought could also be used as a changing station for the baby. The cabinet was very elegant with matching handles and smooth cherry coloured finish. She was rather pleased about the price, which was quite low, considering the quality of workmanship. Few months later, the elder sibling of the baby, who incidentally was just 3 years old then, decided that the nice handles on the drawers could as well be used as some sort of gymnastic gear. I am sure that there is nothing unusual in this story. Unusual happened later, when the wooden drawers, on which the kid was swinging and stretching, just broke into two pieces. My daughter was very irritated with this and contacted the supplier. He was rather philosophical and regretted the event. He felt that since the drawers were made from MDF and were to be used for storage and not for gymnastics, even when the performer was a 3-year-old amateur, his warranty does not cover this misuse.  There was nothing else to do except throw that junk into garbage.
This is how I found MDF (Medium density Fiberboard). When my daughter told me about the incident, the investigative journalist inside me woke up and I started looking for information about wood substitutes. During my search, besides MDF, I also found Particleboards, chipboards and block boards, a whole range of products, which look like wood. I already knew about Plywood, which has been around, for quite a few years now. Out of these various substitutes for wood, a Plywood sheet is essentially made by gluing together, number of thin wooden slices, under pressure and high temperature. This in fact improves, over some characteristics of real wood, like elasticity. Plywood, in spite of processing, remains real solid wood. On the other hand, particleboards, chipboards and block boards all are essentially sandwiches. Manufacturers fill all kinds of waste wood, mixed with glue, between these two slices of wood. MDF is made from wood pulp. Small wood chips are actually cooked into pulp and later mixed with urea formaldehyde or even melamine resins. Both these chemicals are highly toxic and could cause health problems for carpenters. The material then is formed to look like wood.
All these substitutes show extremely poor physical characteristics compared to wood. Two important parameters here are Modulus of Rupture or MOR and Modulus of Elasticity or MOE. The MOR and MOE of MDF are just quarter of that of wood and MOR and MOE of particleboard are just about one eighth of that of wood. It is no wonder that my Grand daughter could easily break the chest of drawers. However, we shall leave this aspect of these materials, aside. The main advantages of MDF and other composites are the fabulous looks they have, ease of working on these and very low cost, compared to wood or even for that matter, plywood.
When I learned about these wood composites, my initial reaction was very positive. I thought that wide spread use of these materials, would certainly bring down the consumption of wood, worldwide. This would reduce logging and rate of denuding of the forests would surely go down. Unfortunately what has happened is just the opposite.
If we visit any of the big stores in any country, we would be amazed at the wide range of wooden products available from small kitchen accessories like towel holders to household furniture. A separate class of products for building industry like wooden flooring, wooden panels and doors are also available. All these products have super finish. All products are so well manufactured that these are usually available in a kit form. The consumers can assemble the furniture with few tools and it would still look factory made. Even with all these plus points, the prices are incredibly low.
One outcome of this mini revolution in furniture industry has been the utilization pattern. Remember the furniture of old days. It was expensive and used to be a proud family possession. It was handed over from generation to generation and used for long periods. The new furniture comes with a new mantra, Assemble-Use-Throw. The durability of this new furniture therefore, is quite low. This creates sustained demand for the products. For the consumer, it is a good bargain. Get stylish furniture at bargain prices. Use it and just throw it when not required any more. So why am I complaining?
There is a small problem however. The demand for this modern furniture is growing at a very rapid rate worldwide. In the year 2006, total world production of wooden furniture was US$ 270 Billion. Moreover, for the last decade it has been growing at a rate of about 30%. This is a very bad news for the forests on the earth. Moreover, in the earlier days, the demand for wood for furniture- making was limited to a few types of wood such as Teak, Pine, Walnut or Mahogany. With the advent of new technologies like MDF, the demand now is for all types of wood.
Let us now travel to Zhangjiagang City in China. This city, located on the southern bank of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, is a part of Jiangsu Province with Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuxi and other cities in the vicinity. Last year, entire processing industry output from this city was around US$ 12 Billion. A part of this output was the wooden products, as this city hosts a very large number of wood products industry. Total Chinese wood production in 2005 was estimated to be worth US$ 51 billion with exports touching US$ 13 Billion. Wood production from Zhangjiagang City is therefore a major part of total Chinese output and is a good representative of the total picture.
Zhangjiagang City also has a modern port nearby and is called  Zhangjiagang  Port. As per statistics published by customs, during first half of year 2008, 1.642 million cubic meters of wooden logs valued at US$ 410 million, were imported into the country  through this port only and are obviously legal imports. According to one report however, total Chinese imports of logs have grown to about 45 million cubic meters by now. Much of the imports have come as unprocessed logs from developing countries. China also imports huge quantities of sawn wood and wood chips.
Most logs imported into China, are effectively stolen, with no payment of government royalties to exporting nations or environmental control over harvest operations. At least 80% of Chinese timber imports from Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Indonesia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands are illegal, with somewhat lower values (50 to 60%) for Malaysia and Russia.
When I saw this scale of imports, I realized that I was looking at another Environmental Black hole with its center in Zhangjiagang City. How fast this black hole is going to gobble up forest cover of the earth? was the question that came immediately to my mind.  It is obvious that at this rate of consumption, and rate of growth, our forests are surely not going to last for very many years. Many a times, a picture is worth thousand words. Those who are still not convinced, may have a look at some images on these links.
Unfortunately, developed countries are playing a key role in the destruction of forests. It is their demand for cheap wood products, which is fueling China’s wood products industry. As long as this demand exists, Chinese wood products industry would continue to grow.
A report in National Geographic Magazine says that Island of Borneo has already lost half of its forest cover and lowland forests, which produce all the timber, would vanish by 2010. What prevents the same thing happening in Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Indonesia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands?
Nothing! would be my answer. However, if you ask me when? Well! A rather difficult question to answer. I feel that it may happen sooner than we think. It could also be within our lifetimes.
6 June 2009

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