Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) sparked many headlines a few years ago when the $12 billion company announced that it had both launched aggressive forest-restoration programs and adopted a zero-deforestation policy. The turnaround came after a turbulent time during which many NGOs, including Greenpeace, hounded the company over what they insisted were substandard, and even destructive, environmental policies.
Since that declaration in 2013, the company earned begrudging respect from the likes of the Rainforest Alliance and Greenpeace. Nevertheless, occasionally controversy will flare up over what environmentalists maintain are dubious land management programs. Clearcutting and the setting of fires are among the accusations still occasionally hurled at APP.
A visit to some of APP’s facilities in China, however, suggests that the company is keeping that zero-deforestation promise.
Last week, APP led a tour of some of its properties in Hainan province, located on a large subtropical island in the south of China. APP representatives were keen on showing journalists where the company’s complicated paper-making journey begins.
The process involved in making paper, from planting to the finished paper product, takes about six years. It all starts at a rather nondescript laboratory in the middle of the island, located about a 90-minute drive from the provincial capital, Haikou. It was there we met Dr. Wending Huang, one of APP’s senior executives tasked with leading the team of the 1,600 employees in China who comprise APP’s forestry division in that country.
In China, APP’s wood of choice is eucalyptus and to a lesser extent, acacia. Eucalyptus comprises 80 percent of the trees grown in China because, as anyone who has had them on their property can verify, they grow fast and are resilient.
According to Dr. Huang, there are as many as 900 different varietals of eucalyptus. The trees have evolved from what he and his team determined were the best out of the country’s crop of trees. Seeds from these “high-performing trees” are taken to the lab and further analyzed. Over the years, the company developed many different hybrids of eucalyptus as its scientists and lab workers culled the best attributes of some trees to breed them with other strong performers.
This process is akin to what goes on in the global cattle industry: The trees the company wants to plant and eventually cut are the ones that can grow the highest in a five- to six-year timeframe; offer the optimal amount of fiber when they are harvested; and can grow with minimal inputs such as fertilizer while also resisting pests and other problems such as plant rust. Just to be clear, explained Dr. Huang several times during the tour, these are not GMO trees — they are hybrids.
The magic begins in this lab, where visitors are asked to cover their shoes upon entering to avoid bringing in any chemicals or bacteria. Workers start by pouring what looks like a gel, which is full of nutrients, into what are approximately 6-ounce (180 ml) jars. Another team drops the seeds, which start germinating and splicing within only a few days. Workers nimbly separate the tiny seedlings: Some are separated for further testing, and most are moved to other jars, where they start to resemble broccoli florets. Anywhere from 20 to 25 seedlings can start growing in each jar. And while they do not multiply as fast as bacteria, they can multiply from one to 1 million fairly quickly.
After a few weeks, workers move the seedlings outdoors, where they are placed into small paper planters — which eventually decompose and contribute to these seedlings’ growth. Within three to four months, after they reach a height of 10 to 16 inches (25 to 40 cm), they are ready to be moved to one of APP’s plantations elsewhere on the island. The exact timing of planting depends on how moist the soil is; none of these lands are irrigated as Hainan island receives anywhere from 60 to 80 inches (1,500 to 2,000 ml) of rain annually. Dr. Huang and his staff noted that we were surrounded by about 350,000 trees, which will contribute to the approximate 14 million trees the company expects to plant throughout its lands this year.
Some of the seedlings end up in one of APP’s social enterprise programs. APP does not own all of the land on which it grows its trees — some of it is leased from local communities; other areas are land collectives. APP representatives explained that some seedlings are given away to local residents, who are tasked with growing them — and eventually APP will buy them back and plant them on one of their tree farms. “From the moment this process starts, we want to be known as a company of collaboration and a partner of the communities in which we operate,” said one APP spokesperson as the tour of this laboratory and surrounding lands concluded.
Disclosure: APP is funding Leon Kaye’s trip to China. Neither the author nor TriplePundit were required to write about the experience.