Wastes As Value: Sustainable Resources for Pulp and Paper Production in the USSR

In 1988, Brenton Barr and Kathleen Braden published a book, intriguingly titled The Disappearing Russian Forest, where they stressed that Soviet resource management was wasteful because of intensive cutting and huge imports, among other things.[1] Indeed, the Soviet project is usually seen as a product of rapid industrialization and ecocidal attitude towards nature. Since the revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks admired steaming pipes constructing huge industrial enterprises with no or just little regard for environmental harm. The present-day Russia is similarly a place where ecological destruction remains one of the main national problems and where the level of pollution is enormous. However, simultaneously with the intensive exploitation of nature, Soviet industrial employees expressed an alarmist view of disappearing natural resources. Specifically, after WWII, some Soviet scientists, engineers, and producers believed that intensive industrial practice, which was part and parcel of Soviet experiment, led to devastation of forests.[2] This new vision, however, was much more complicated than just the product of a shift from industrial to ecological thinking.

After the war, Soviet institutions were concerned about so-called “complex use” of resources, as it was officially called, which was based on the re-evaluation of wastes left after each industrial operation with wood. This was an idea first expressed by engineers in lumber industry in the 1930s. It was mainly neglected in the mainstream then, but later revived after the mid-1940s. The complex use of natural resources meant rethinking various wastes, ranging from wood dust and chips left after cutting to paper scraps. In short, perhaps ‘waste,’ too, could have its uses. To use Marxian terminology, wastes gained use value when their utility was considerably rethought after the war.[3] Historians can clearly observe the transformation of wastes (otkhody) from something to get rid of in the interwar world into a valuable resource due to the magical powers of technology which could transform wastes into demanded products in the postwar USSR. Technology, which was at the core of Soviet state propaganda, was a black box where wastes became ready-for-use products. Gradually, wastes left over after various industrial operations ranging from wood harvesting to sawmilling became discussed as valuable resources, something that could be used in industrial operations as a raw material in addition or even completely instead of wood.

To a large extent, these ideas were part of a larger discussion about the problem of deforestation as some writers, scientists, and even engineers said that destroying forests because of industrial needs was rapid. At the same time, they said, Soviet enterprises traditionally used wood and saw-milling wastes as fuel or just left it rotting in the forests or at factories, which they now saw as a backward practice. Wastes could be more economically useful with the help of progressive technology and could ease the intensiveness of cuttings for the future.

By the 1950s, both the executives at the highest level of power and the engineers and scientists who worked at industrial enterprises and research institutions conceptualized wood and sawmilling wastes—such as tree bark, branches, and unused parts of lumber—as materials which would solve the problem of deforestation on the one hand and the supplies of timber on the other hand, and in addition would make production of many goods cheaper. Specialists connected the use of wastes to so-called economic rationality, stressing that before the 1950s industrial end- and by-products were thrown away as rubbish, but now it was necessary to utilize them as raw materials.[4] In this sense, the complex use of resources was a product of industrial discourse. Waste was seen as a potential raw material which was cheaper than felling new wood. It totally satisfied the ideals of economizing and rationalizing. Overall, specialists expected that using wastes would provide a solution for shortages of raw materials in their mission to catch up with the West.

Bu where and how did specialists propose to use wastes to replace wood?

As early as in 1962 up to eighty percent of panel furniture and other house details—such as doors, sidings, floors, among others—was made from fiberboards manufactured from wastes.[5] In the 1970s, sawmill wastes were also used for manufacturing souvenirs, such as matreoshkas, wooden Santa Clauses, and other goods. In many cases, it helped translate hand-made practices to industrial production of consumer goods. In general, the idea of substituting raw materials with surrogates and alternative resources through chemistry and sophisticated technology became overwhelming in Soviet production. Wood wastes could be used instead of sugar and grain, soap and soap materials, varnish, and lubrication, among others. Chemistry opened up enormous opportunities for production and provided synthetic raw materials for substituting agricultural goods for making food stuff.

Image from Nastroy.
[Image Description: A series of red-painted Russian dolls with feminine faces, increasing in complexity of design and of size going from left to right in the image.]

Due to that, not only wood and sawmill wastes but also straw and annual plant crops became materials to which specialists often referred for manufacturing law-quality paper and cardboard. Similarly to wood wastes, there were successful projects on using yearly plants and especially straw as early as since the late nineteenth century. Particularly important were reeds or phragmites, perennial grasses spread in warm parts of the world which grow in river deltas. In the Soviet Union, these plants covered large territories of Ukraine, the South of Russia, and Kazakhstan. Locals used this plant for constructing houses and as forage for cattle. In Soviet sources, both reeds and phragmites were often combined as one, and reed (kamysh, and sometimes trostnik) was a universal and commonly used word to cover both categories. In the wider framework of the search for more rational sources for industrial production, annual plants—with a chemical structure similar to wood and appropriate for pulp cooking and making paper—became a center of interest for high Soviet officials in the 1950s. From the economic perspective, reed was cheaper than wood and much more sustainable: it grew anew every year while for a tree it took at least fifity years before it could be cut for industrial use. As a result, Soviet leadership grew enthralled by the idea about having a rapidly replenishing raw material available for use.

Overall, these projects were also connected to the problem of chronic shortages of raw materials, providing an alternative for resource supply. Bureaucrats and scientists alike shared experiences of a shortage economy and alarmist visions of Soviet forests as disappearing. The idea to use reeds and other alternative resources in industrial production can be seen as an attempt to pursue more sustainable uses of natural resources. The expectations on re-growth of reed were high, and new technologies promised to transform alternative raw materials into industrial products. In this story of postwar Soviet resource-use, ecological and industrial imperatives combined, showing that the Soviet industry was not simply a total destroyer of its forests but used a more complicated approach due to the contribution of science and technology.

[1] Brenton Barr and Kathleen Braden, The Disappearing Russian Forest: A Dilemma in Soviet Resource Management (Lanham, MD: Rowman& Littlefield, 1988).

[2] Elena Kochetkova, “Industry and Forests: Alternative Raw Materials in the Soviet Forestry Industry from the Mid-1950s to the 1960s,” Environment and History 24, no. 3 (2018): 323-347.

[3] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, Book One: The Process of Production of Capital (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1995), 27.

[4] E.L. Nordshtrem and A.A. Lizunov, “Ob ispol`zovanii otkhodov lesozagotovok,” Lesnaia promyshlennost` 12 (1949), 21.

[5] A.S. Nikiforov, “Proizvodstvu drevesnykh plit – preimushchestvennoe razvitie,” Derevoobrabatyvaiushchaia promyshlennost` 7 (1962), 1.

*Cover image: Photo by the author.

[Cover image description: In the foreground, ripples marr a body of water otherwise perfectly reflecting a blue sky and scattered clouds. Mid-photo there is a line of reeds and other grasses, behind which there is a tall and distant line of dark evergreen trees.]