What is cheaper than paper? ROCK.

That is (in part) why some paper manufacturers put minerals such as calcium carbonate (CaCO3), titanium dioxide (TiO2) or talc in their paper. As much as 10% of a sheet of copy paper or tablet paper can be made of rock! Minerals serve as a surface filler, filling in the holes between the wood pulp fibers. Aside from being cheap fillers that displace more expensive wood pulp, these minerals increase opacity, making a sheet less see-through. Minerals also increase “ink hold out” or the property which keeps ink on the surface of the sheet and prevents it from bleeding.

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Did you know…

  • Calcium Carbonate is found in the shells of snails and other sea organisms as well as eggshells and pearls.
  • Hydrated magnesium silicate, or the mineral known more commonly as Talc, is an incredibly soft mineral. It is the main component of soapstone and is used in powder form known as baby powder.
  • Titanium dioxide is also used regularly as a photosensitive pigment known as titanium white.

All summer long I heard people going on and on about Big Bambu.

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Since its opening in the middle of April I’d seen facebook pictures of it and listened to stories of friends bribing people to get tickets to climb it. Much like this spring’s Marina Abramovic retrospective at MoMA, the Starns brothers’ outdoor installation was one of those uniquely engaging, epically durational pieces that just had to be witnessed. So when I was invited to a press viewing immediately following the completion of Phase II this past July I just had to go.

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Currently hovering atop the roof gardens of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a 50 foot tall jungle of natural grass and nylon rope. Like a version of pick up sticks for Greek gods, this swarming hive of bamboo poles creates something both jarringly chaotic and peacefully organic.  Begun in March and slated to finish near the end of September, the structure has been constructed in three “Phases”. At the time of my visit the structure had just reached its apex, while Phase III will bring with it a massive cantilevered wing that will jut out over the edge of the Met’s roof, spilling into Central Park just in time for the arrival of fall.

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Climbing the thing makes you feel like a kid again, and it’s obvious that the Starns’ team of rock climbers and builders has had a joyful time erecting this marvel. Bamboo cupholders, instruments, and other little loving touches abound within the structure. The human touch amidst the natural chaos, such as the bands of brightly colored nylon rope that tie it all together, remind you that this is an innately human feat, albeit made from natural materials.

But perhaps what I found most amazing about the piece was something I learned while on the tour. Apparently the Starns had begun this idea by building similar large structures within their Beacon studio. However, while standing there looking at this incredibly fluid and natural form the Curator announced that they had originally planned to build this entire piece out of steel poles rather than bamboo!

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Now, if that’s not a material story, I don’t know what is.

What would this rolling, graceful structure have been had it been made of steel? How on earth would a 40 ft long cantilever of metal poles dangling into Central Park have ever passed building and fire codes? It certainly wouldn’t have looked the same or, I believe, attracted the same kind of attention. Then there’s the ecological considerations of using bamboo over metal. Hearing that tidbit of information left me pondering the difference a material makes. It simply wouldn’t have been the same piece.

After all: they did, in the end, call it Big Bambu!

Big Steel Rods just wouldn’t have been the same.

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Working on The New Materials Handbook blesses me with these “eureka” moments in my daily life…

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I remember one of my first “eurekas” occurred while perusing a short blurb in a magazine about a new luxury tank top…you know… the sort of basic, white tank top that for some reason costs as much as a rental house in the Hamptons? Before now I’d always glowered at such objects of luxury, scorning them and whoever could afford them as purveyors of frivolity, but as I read the words, “combed… organic… Sea Island Cotton” I had two realizations:

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1.this tank top might be worth at least a portion of its price

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2: my job was actually teaching me something.

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So what had it taught me? That those words “Sea Island ” and “combed” are marks of quality; that they actually mean something about the texture, hand, and appearance of the fabric. In brief, Sea Island Cotton is one of the longest, most luxurious cotton staples out there, similar to the more ubiquitous Egyptian cotton. But what about “combed”? Just what does that mean?

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COMBED VS CARDED YARNS

An illustration of the wool yarn spinning process from americanhomerugs.com. Please note the two separate steps of combing and carding. These apply to all or most natural fibers.

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When fibers are being prepared for spinning into yarn they undergo a long series of steps. In order for the fibers to be arranged into a shape that facilitates spinning they undergo “carding”, which means the fibers are “brushed” into a singular orientation, kind of like combing one’s hair in order to braid it.  In the olden days this was done by hand on small “cards” that look very similar to the brush we used on my golden retriever as a kid. In modern textile mills, carding is carried out by large cylinders or flats covered in wire teeth that spread fibers across a surface, separating and orienting them into a web. They will then be grouped into long strands of loose rope known as sliver. This sliver is then spun into yarns.

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Traditional hand carders and a "rolag" or sliver, ready to be spun into yarn.

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However, if the fibers are destined for more refined applications, such as a luxury tank top, the sliver might be further combed, which removes the shorter fibers from the mass and further orients the longer fibers into an even smoother, parallel pattern. In this way combing greatly affects the quality of the yarn: yarn diameter is made more even, has a better twist and hand feel, is more uniform, and exhibits less of a tendency to pill, and this is reflected in the price of combed yarns when compared with carded ones.

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On the left an illustration of a yarn that has merely been carded. The yarn on the right has also been combed. Notice the difference in texture. Those loose, rough fibers are what cause pilling and faster deterioration of the fabric.

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For fibers destined for worsted yarns (such as some wools) the term gilling is sometimes used. For flax and other bast fibers, the carding and combing process is known as hackling.

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While there’s certainly a lot to be said for the mark-up elicited by designer names and marketing strategies, it is facts like these about the processing of certain materials that can often directly affect the price and the quality of the final product. When you decide to splurge, be sure that what you’re getting what you pay for!

New uses for old Newspapers: Make your own Paper seed pots!

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Who can resist a fun paper craft project? Not this contributor.

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Nether Wallop Trading,  a British company that specializes in unusual products for the home and garden makes a beautiful little wood device called The Paper Potter that helps you convert old newspapers into seed pots. This is a beautiful little wooden item that I am dying to play with … and then I remembered: I don’t receive the newspaper! But it sure is a pretty little item.

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If you don’t want to buy the Paper Potter, may we suggest using a common household item like a drinking glass to help you make your seed pots. Check out this instructional video and save the wood for the trees.


Introducing New It’s Not Paper! Plastic plates

Plastic Trumps Paper… well … at least in this instance!

The paper plates my Mom used for picnics and beach trips are certainly not the same plates we use today. Back then they were thin, white, and had that distinctive fluted shoulder intended to add strength to the form. They were so flimsy I remember my Mom had a set of wicker plate baskets that we popped the paper plates into in order to keep them from collapsing and spilling barbeque sauce all over our clothes. The plates were matte and absorbent, without the glossy plastic coating which makes them bleed-proof today. Where did those plates go?

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In a move that is one part eco-friendly and one part nostalgic, One Hundred 80° has introduced the It’s Not Paper! melamine dinnerware line using the same familiar shape as the old model. While plastic plates are nothing new, in this instance they’ve been designed specifically to imitate their paper predecessor. I also think this is funny because the first melamine plate was developed for the U.S. Navy to replace stainless steel plates in the mess hall, as stainless steel (being conductive) made the food get colder faster.  Plastic was the solution to that problem, and now plastic has solved another solution: by eliminating the “one use only” behavior of the paper plate.

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Check out this video from their website:

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It’s perhaps one of the most random news stories of the summer: a shortage of highway paint threatens to curb thousands of summer road crews and seriously hinder road safety. Transportation authorities all over the nation are nervous as to the potential risks to motorists, and an entire industry of workers is facing an employment shortage at the height of their usual work season. But why?  Is it due to bureaucratic inefficiency? No. Worker’s strikes? Nope.  All this hubbub is being caused by the lack of one little monomer: Methyl Methacrylate.

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Both NPR and The New York Times have recently reported on this story and its larger effects on road safety and work force issues, but what about the material itself? Maybe you’ve heard of it before– anyone who’s been to a nail salon has certainly smelled it before–but what is methyl methacrylate and why is there none to be found?

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Methyl methacrylate, or MMA for short, is a chemical monomer commonly used in acrylates (aka acrylics) such as Lucite and Plexiglass, where it is polymerized into Polymethyl methacrylate (or PMMA). PMMA is also a key ingredient in acrylic nails, dental prosthesis, and even some engine lubricants. We know PMMA most commonly as just plain ol’ “acrylic”. In its monomer form, however, MMA is also a key ingredient in many adhesives and epoxies, including traffic paint and artists’ acrylic paints.

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MMA is valuable in highway paint as it is incredibly tacky and abrasion resistant. These two properties combine to help MMA retain reflective glass beads within the paint’s surface under regular road conditions (inclement weather, repeat abrasion, etc). The glass beads in turn help make highway paint visible even in dark and rainy conditions.

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

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According to many articles, the economic downturn of the past two years has caused many of the MMA plants in this country to cease production. Further hindering the situation is the fact that Dow Chemical, which recently bought the Rohm and Haas MMA manufacturing facility in Deer Plant, Texas has executed a sudden six month shut down of that plant. According to some reports this shut down was carried out for “retooling”. Others believe that this was a market-driven, strategic move by Dow, who now own 60% of the MMA market in this country.

Here at material culture we’re currently trying to get to the bottom of this!  Can’t someone give us an explanation of why we’re suddenly so short on MMA? We’ll check back in with this story as it develops. Stay tuned.

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I live with an architect. I’ll never forget the day when, after a year of designing and building out our loftspace, he stood in the center of the living room scratching his chin in that unmistakable way that meant he was cooking up more projects for us. The drywall dust was just starting to settle on our reclaimed palette wood wall, and here he was begging for more: concrete countertops, a bathroom overhaul, additional storage cabinets, etc… I sat there listening as he measured and estimated, convinced that we was certifiably insane. But, after reading the bios of design trio Graypants I can safely say this never ending desire to tinker and create must be something that comes honestly to architects the world over.

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For the past two years Graypants has been making a name for themselves by creating graceful, simple creations from found and salvaged materials using a handmade aesthetic that is nowhere to be found at any Ikea. Their work springs from passion… and it shows.

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Based out of Seattle, this group of gents came together after realizing that their desk jobs at architecture firms were leaving them lacking in the hands-on department. Thus, Graypants was born. The trio live and work in their self-designed space, and their creations and their lifestyle seem to effortlessly merge into one another.

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I ran across Graypants– dapper tophats and all– at this year’s ICFF and was immediately swayed by their gorgeous recycled cardboard lamps. Each one is made entirely from recycled cardboard boxes, the cutting and arranging of the corrugations rendering the pendants with intricate designs and beautiful asymmetry. Unlike other companies who aim to create products with a green bent, for Graypants the idea of creating objects from trash is built out of necessity. According to them it was not their aim to “create a company about recycling”. Instead they wanted to work with what was immediately available and cheap. But their designs are far from junky:  their side tables and chairs made from discarded plywood are striking, their pendant lamps made from recycled sketch paper or cardboard manipulate light in charming ways, and they’ve even made dog houses from found objects for charity!

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Maybe all that tinkering can pay off… but please just don’t mention concrete countertops in front of my roommate.

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Check out Graypants at http://www.graypants.com/

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Water can be fluid or solid depending on temperature. Glass is the same. New York artist Pamela Lawton shows us something of both qualities in her painting series titled “Liquid City”.

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In the late 1990s the city of New York had a program that allowed artists to use the unoccupied 10% of the World Trade Center as studio space. Lawton worked in two of those studios and her work captures what she saw: the endless reflections of one glass building into another; the changing light, sky and weather. Her paintings are fluid, undulating, colorful and alive; illustrating some of the best qualities of glass.

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“Most tourists experience the city from the street level. They’re interested in street events,” says Lawton. “Instead, I’m looking up high at a beautiful skyscraper.”

Thank you Lawton for bringing to our attention the beautiful and obscure world hovering right over our heads.


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No, that’s not a terrifyingly stale rice cake. Rather, the image above is the ubiquitous stock photo of a sample of pervious concrete working its magic. Over the last two decades pervious concrete has seen a steady increase in popularity as a sustainable alternative in low traffic pavement applications, residential sidewalks and greenhouses. Created from many of the same forms of aggregate and cement used in traditional concrete manufacture, pervious concrete has an open cell structure which enables water to pass through its surface, reducing toxic water runoff from parking lots. It is classified by the EPA as the best way to manage storm water runoff under the EPA’s Storm Water Phase II Final Rule.

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But what exactly makes it different, and is it indeed a panacaea for our over-paved planet? Here’s a side-by-side comparison of some facts about traditional concrete and the “holy stuff”.

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Traditional Concretes Pervious Concrete
Composition A typical total volume ratio for standard concrete is:

Aggregates: 60  to 75%

Cement:           10  to 15%

Water :            15  to  20%

Entrained air:  4   to   8%

Made with many of the same materials as usual concrete, the major difference here is the size of the aggregate used. Due to its porous nature, aggregates in pervious concrete cannot be smaller than 3/8” and sand is usually eliminated from the mixture altogether. Aggregate size and mixture must be far more heavily monitored than with traditional concrete mixtures.
Strength Concrete’s strength can vary greatly depending on the final use. Structural concrete usually has a  strength of at least 2500 psi, while high-strength concrete can achieve 7250 psi. It is these materials which are then used for applications such as highways and skyscrapers. Pervious concrete can not yet achieve the same strengths as traditional concretes. Typical strength measurements lie between 500 to 4000 psi. As of now, it is not acceptable for use in high traffic areas or on highways.
Water Treatment Typical concrete does not absorb water at all. Rather rain runoff usually travels along its surface, finding its way into ditches, streams, rivers and lakes. Toxic substances such as motor oil and antifreeze, deposited on the concrete from parked cars, are often carried away into waterways along with it. Pervious concrete not only allows water to pass through its pore system, it also helps to trap and filter the pollutants left by automobiles Research has determined that 97.6-99% of oils introduced into pervious pavements are trapped and biodegraded. Typical flow rates for water through pervious concrete are 3-8 gal/ft²/min.
Environmental Relations Concrete is notorious for creating the “heat island effect”, whereby “surfaces that were once permeable and moist become impermeable and dry. These changes cause urban regions to become warmer than their rural surroundings, forming an “island” of higher temperatures in the landscape.” This in turn can affect energy costs, vegetation and water quality, and increase mortality rates due to heat related illnesses.

Concrete also tends to block oxygen and water from reaching the roots of surrounding vegetation, making it difficult to landscape a parking lot with shade trees.

Its lighter color and porous nature means it traps less heat than usual concretes. This in turn reduces heat island effect.

The ability for water to travel through its pores also means that trees planted in and around pervious parking lots are able to receive more water and oxygen to their roots systems, helping them to flourish.

One point of contention about pervious concrete is whether its porous nature is a benefit or a detriment in freeze/thaw situations. Some argue that its porous nature keeps it from collecting snow and ice, thereby elminating the chance for damage. Others contend the opposite.

Maintenance Aside from annual maintenance due to freeze/thaw, concrete is usually laid and forgotten about. Potholes, cracks and other damage can be handled on an as-needed basis. Unlike regular concrete, pervious concrete needs a good regular cleaning to keep its porous channels running effectively. Maintenance methods are still being developed, but high power water blasters and even special “vaccum cleaners” are regularly employed.
Cost Depending on the aggregate and admixtures used, concretes can be rather inexpensive to use. Professionals and amateurs alike can use it.

The fabricators of pervious concrete argue that while the material is more expensive at the onset, it’s durability and recyclability make it the lowest-life cycle cost option available in paving applications.

However, professionals trained specifically in laying pervious concrete must be consulted in order for the material to be laid correctly, which can increase production costs.

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All of this is well and good, but nothing beats good old fashioned experience with a material. We’d like to hear from you, our reader. Has anyone out there been surprised or disappointed by the properties of pervious concrete? Where has it exceeded expectations or failed them utterly? We’d love to hear your input.

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For more information about pervious concretes visit these sites:

http://www.perviouspavement.org/

http://www.pervious.info/

http://www.ecocreto.com/

http://perviousblog.typepad.com/the-road-less-raveled/

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“Wood is made from trees. Trees grow in forests and deforestation is bad.”

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While all of the above statements can be generally stated as “true”, it is vitally important for us to look closer at what each of those words even mean. Depending on who you’re talking to, the words “tree”, “forest”, and “deforestation” can mean a great many different things. A forestry professional will say one thing. A logger might say another. Lastly, many NGO’s and conservation groups have their own set of definitions that they must use in assessing places of crisis…and yet all of these definitions rarely come to a consensus. In the worlds of ecology, materials manufacture and conservation even basic nouns can’t be taken for granted.

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TREES

First let’s start with the word “tree”. It actually isn’t a scientific term at all. In fact, the word “tree” is an entirely man-made concept, and is used simply to denote any plant which grows a long singular trunk of a considerable height with a slow reproductive pattern and a longer life span (average 100 years). In certain climates many species generally considered to be “trees” will remain only low-lying “shrubs”, while in other places they tower over us like behemoths.  What’s more, many dense hanging jungle vines (lianas) can acquire trunks of substantial girth, and yet we don’t consider them to be “trees”. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the designation of “tree” is a “human concept based on visual criteria” and is “an artificial category”. No wonder the Lorax had so much trouble: one can’t very easily “speak for the trees” when you don’t even really know what a “tree” is.

Forests:

Ok. So trees are a made up concept. Well, what about forests? It’s easy to spot a forest, right? It seems like an obvious answer, but the definition for the word “forest”, according to many forestry and conservation groups, is a difficult entity to pin down. Just how many “trees” does it take to make a forest? How large must the land be, and can it be used simultaneously for anything else? Must it contain exclusively native animal and plant species or can it simply be a collection of replanted trees devoid of any animal life? Once all of these factors are taken into consideration it becomes obvious that a forest is a great deal more than just potential lumber. In fact, according to some sources there are nearly 250 standing definitions for the word forest.  This is getting complicated.

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Here’s where the professionals come in. Maybe they can sort this out:

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Many orgnanizations such as the UNFAO, the UNEP/CBD and the UNFCCC define forests based on their percentage of canopy cover as well as other parameters. Here are their definitions:

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UNFAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization): “Land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 metres and a canopy cover of more than 10 percent, or trees able to reach these thresholds in situ. It does not include land that is predominantly under agriculture or urban use.”

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UNEP/CBD 2001: (United Nations Environmental Program/ Center for Biological Diversity) “Forest is a land area of more than 0.5 ha, with a tree canopy cover of more than 10 percent, which is not primarily under agriculture or other specific non-forest land use. In the case of young forest or regions where tree growth is climatically suppressed, the trees should be capable of reaching a height of 5 m in situ, and of meeting the canopy cover requirement.”

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UNFCCC, 2001: (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) “Forest is a minimum area of land of 0.05-1.0 hectares with tree crown cover (or equivalent stocking level) of more than 10-30 per cent with trees with the potential to reach a minimum height of 2-5 metres at maturity in situ. A forest may consist either of closed forest formations where trees of various storeys and undergrowth cover a high proportion of the ground or open forest. Young natural stands and all plantations which have yet to reach a crown density of 10-30 per cent or tree height of 2-5 metres are included under forest, as are areas normally forming part of the forest area which are temporarily unstocked as a result of human intervention such as harvesting or natural causes but which are expected to revert to forest.”

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As you can see, there are some factors within these definitions that are common: a canopy cover of 10-30%, at least .5-1 hectare in surface area, a minimum height of 5 meters, but the controversy over these definitions comes in, particularly in the case of the UNFCCC, with the second half of the definition: Young natural stands and all plantations which have yet to reach a crown density of 10-30 per cent or tree height of 2-5 metres are included under forest, as are areas normally forming part of the forest area which are temporarily unstocked as a result of human intervention such as harvesting or natural causes but which are expected to revert to forest.”

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Uh…Plantations are not natural forest growth. They do not contain the diverse ecosystem which is supported and cultivated within a natural forest.  Also, this definition means that land which has been clear cut but is expected to reforest (with no indication of when or how) can still be classified as “forests”. According to many non-profit and conservation groups, this leaves areas such as the African Congo, South America and Southeast Asia with far too much wiggle room.

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Is this a forest?

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Is this a forest?

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How much of this is forest?

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Seeing forests as multi-functional, biologically vital cornerstones of our global ecology (and economy) is a broad and complex issue. Knowing what is “the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time” in forest management is a multidisciplinary practice which includes the knowledge and input of botanists, biologists, zoologists, foresters, silviculturalists, arborists, wood specialists, wood and paper manufacturers, environmentally minded not for profits, international organizations…and us. So let’s get our words straight, can we?