First came two great bales of flattened cardboard then a tower of 1,500 catalogues, magazines, reports and printouts, topped off with a tumble of 120 toilet rolls, two bin bags full of junk mail and a thick layer of brown paper bags. Finally, Mandy Haggith tipped hundreds of receipts and bus tickets over the 5ft heap. Then she stood back and waited.
Villagers trickled into the hall one by one, smiles at the spectacle quickly fading as they realised that Mandy's mountain represented the 250kg of paper they, personally, had thrown away over the last year. Much of it barely used, most of it made by sending an ancient tree from the most threatened areas of the world crashing to the forest floor.
"People were really shocked," says Haggith, 41, who gathered the six loaded wheelbarrows full of paper from local businesses at her Highland home of Lochinver. "Paper comes in and out of our lives so fast we barely notice it. Put it in a pile and then get people to imagine it at 20 tons, which is the amount they will use in a lifetime, and it gets frightening. Especially when they realise that apart from a few books, this is also the amount they will end up throwing away."
No one likes to think of trees being felled, but many of us have a cosy image in our heads that it all comes from recycling or "sustainable" woodlands growing in neat rows, perhaps somewhere in Sweden. It's a myth. Globally, 70 per cent of the 335 million tons of paper the world uses each year comes from natural, un-farmed sources. In Canada, the UK's biggest source of pulp, 90 per cent of its output comes directly from its ancient forests.
"Paper production is revolting and it's lethal," says Haggith. "Leaving aside the destruction of the forests, the poisoning of the rivers from the processing of the wood, the decimation of local communities and wildlife ... the co2 that results is making a massive contribution to global warming. Exposed peat lands and felled trees give off huge amounts of methane and carbon and then you have further CO2 release when it all ends up in landfill at the end.
"The Bali climate change conference recognised deforestation as the source of around 20 per cent of all emissions: that's three times the amount resulting from global aviation. And for what? Flyers advertising double glazing, fashion magazines we skim through, a bundle of paper napkins in a café we leave behind on the table."
Haggith's paper mountain and a slideshow of what she uncovered on her trip, had an immediate effect on her village. A Recycling Group was set up with local parents, shop owners and a ranger. After lobbying the Highlands council and a letter campaign to the local paper, the village got its first paper bank – "which is always crammed". They are now stepping up the pressure for cardboard recycling – one local shop has been given a bailing machine and flattens and keeps all their old boxes until the village can find a trader willing to buy the waste cardboard: "Or we will come up with some other way of re-using it locally such as shredding it for animal bedding or insulation," says Haggith. "The idea is to be able to sell or reuse every bit of all the community's cardboard."
One of the first visitors to Mandy's Mountain was the local school and now, led by enthusiastic teachers, they have set up paper recycling bins all over school. There are very few people in the village who are not involved in some way. "Telling people what is really happening is the first step, then it's vital that you show them what they can do about it," says Haggith. "That's giving people back control and they can become very motivated very quickly when that happens." Almost everyone has vowed to cut down on their paper usage.
Haggith, a veteran forest campaigner and the co-ordinator of the 21-member European Environmental Paper Network (EEPN), began the local action on her return from the trip in 2006 which took her round most of the great forests of the world for her new book: Paper Trails. It tracks the devastation left behind by the production of the 12.5 million tons of paper gobbled up by the UK every year.
Although about 42 per cent of that figure comes from recycled sources, we generally only reprocess paper once (it can be used up to 10 times). Haggith, an Oxford graduate with a PhD in artificial intelligence, began fighting for the forests by developing software for organisations such as the UN, to link people involved in forest protection across the world. She set up "Worldforests" with her partner, land rights campaigner Bill Ritchie, working with scientists and activists to bring governments and communities together. By the time of her trip she realised the worldwide consumption of paper had increased fourfold in her lifetime.
"I had visited many forests in the early days of campaigning and I wanted to see if anything had changed. In many cases it was far worse," she says. In Indonesia, she describes how she stood at the edge of a ruined forest in the beating Sumatran sun, weeping with rage. Before her stretched thousands of acres of scorched, lifeless land. Beside her, Pak Jafri the tribal leader of the nearby village of Kuntu, pointed to the area where his people had picked herbs, to the hills where they had gathered honey. All before the government licensed the forest to a multinational paper company, which slashed it down to plant non-native acacias: fast growing, toxic, rampant and perfect for producing office copier paper for the UK.
"I was speechless," says Haggith. "Every last living thing had rotted away except for these plastic-leafed acacias rising like Triffids out of a dried up moonscape. And I was embarrassed. As a British person using copier paper, I was the root cause of all this destruction."
The story was the same throughout Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, but there was a brief respite for Haggith in, of all places, China. Although using vast amounts of timber for construction, their paper record is inspiring. Much of it comes from recycled sources – this is where most of the UK's recyclable paper is sent. But more horror was waiting over the border in Russia. Having traced UK copier paper to Sumatra, Mandy had also visited the great paper mills of Finland, which supply most of our ready-made paper products. While there was some good news – the Finns have tight pollution controls, for example – despite being covered in artificial paper-producing pine forests, Finland, Europe's biggest manufacturer and consumer of paper, is running out of wood and is now importing it on a massive scale from Russia. "Forget the Amazon," says Haggith. "Russia and Canada, between them, hold 50 per cent of our vital forests. But where the Amazon can regenerate very quickly, these northern boreal forests take 200 years to re-grow."
After a good start in Karelia, where hard-line campaigning has managed to protect some of Russia's primeval forests, Haggith visited the ancient shores of Lake Baikal, which contains 25 per cent of the world's fresh water. It is also the home of the Baikalsk pulp mill. "It stank," says Haggith. "This is partly because it has been pouring lethal chlorine compounds into the lake for 40 years. The lake hosts the only freshwater seals in the world and 75 per cent of its species are only found here, all of which will now have absorbed, irrevocably, the mill's carcinogenic effluents.
"But it was Canada that depressed me the most," she says. "Canada is incredibly wealthy, yet 90 per cent of its logging is from old growth forests and its pollution record is horrific. It has some of the worst cases of paper mill pollution I found. Native Americans living near the mills have nerve and skin diseases and soaring rates of cancers from the bleaches used on the pulp."
Canada is also relentless in its pursuit of profit. "Ten years ago I was one of the blockaders fighting to stop the building of logging roads into the temperate rainforest of Clayoquat Sound on Vancouver Island," she says. "It's a vital forest of giant red cedars and spruce and home to bears and wolves." After years of campaigning, a moratorium was finally set to halt the felling. "To my horror, on my return, I discovered this had been arranged to last only 10 years. I had to watch as the logging trucks drove past me and back into the forest. It was chilling."
Haggith is appalled by the paper industry, but years of experience have taught her that focusing on shreds of hope is the only way forward. She highlights the reforms sweeping the book publishing industry after Canadian publisher, Cindy Connor, insisted that the Harry Potter books were printed on recycled paper. This has had a direct impact on companies such as Penguin and HarperCollins who are now changing their paper sourcing policy in the UK.
Another success has been the UK's newspaper industry which voluntarily agreed to raise its recycled paper content to 70 per cent. "This led to a UK paper mill converting to processing recycled paper," says Haggith. "It's an invaluable example to try to pressure the government to set up more." And ironically, it was through conversations with the paper barons that Haggith began to realise where the real answer lies. Presenting to corporate chiefs at the Paper World conference in Frankfurt at the start of her trip, she was expecting opposition and instead found common ground. "Many of them genuinely want to clean up their act," she says. "But they are waiting for the demand to come from their customers. I now know that I don't need to go to Borneo or Ecuador or Russia any more to find the people who can save the forests. The answer lies right here, it's us.
"We have enormous power. By simply making sure we only buy loo roll from recycled sources, we will have an immediate effect on what's happening. Then we need to influence the business consumers who make the decisions for us – such as the producers of junk mail. That starts by simply saying: no."
Last month the EEPN launched "Shrink", an interactive website to help individuals and businesses make a pledge to cut their paper use and take action on a wider scale. And although she has had to stand before so many of the scarred and bleeding forests of the world, Haggith still has unshakeable hope for the future. "Its a wonderful feeling to fight back," she says. "Not just for us but people in the paper industry, too. When Cindy Connor placed her recycled paper order, she said it felt great that she was no longer signing a death warrant for the trees. The forests are, quite literally, our future. If we realise we have the power to save them, there's just a chance we'll act now and stop chucking them in the bin."
Paper Trails by Mandy Haggith is published Virgin Press £12.99. To order this book for the special price of £11.69 (including p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 0870 0798897 or go to www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
How to save the trees
* Do not pick up paper napkins in cafés.
* Ask yourself: do I need to print this? If so, use both sides of the paper.
* Sign up to the Mail Preference Service: www.mpsonline.org.uk
* Make sure any paper you buy (toilet rolls through to writing paper) comes from recycled sources.
* Re-use paper bags or compost receipts and torn-up bank statements
* Cut down on and share magazines, return unwanted catalogues to the sender.
* Re-use envelopes and make your own cards.
* Read small print carefully and never tick the "more information" box.
* Ask your boss to buy recycled paper for your workplace.
* Deforestation caused by paper production is thought to be a bigger cause of global warming than transport.
* Each person in the UK gets through 250kg of paper a year. The worst offenders are the Finns at 333kg. The average Somalian uses 20g.
* Much of the UK's paper is barely used and a large proportion ends up in landfill. Just 42 per cent is recycled – but as there are so few recycling mills in the country, most of this ends up being sent abroad.
* It is a myth that most paper comes from sustainable sources. Seventy per cent of it comes from natural forests.
* The UK produces virtually none of its own pulp and imports 80 per cent of its pulp.
* Around 75 per cent of the paper for magazines is production wastage and is never read.
* Advertisers know that 99.7 per cent of recipients of junk mail throw it away unread. They think it's worth it for the 0.3 per cent who might.