China's massive capacity to recycle waste-paper is preventing many forests around the world from being destroyed, a report has concluded.
Recycling paper reduces the need for virgin wood, the report says
The nation's paper industry imported almost 20 million tonnes in 2006, primarily from the US, Europe and Japan, according to NGO Forest Trends.
The group said about 60% of the fibre used in producing paper was recycled.
But it warned that timber from illegal logging was probably still being used to meet the surge in demand.
"Just last year, China's use of waste-paper instead of trees to make paper products probably saved 54 million metric tons of wood being harvested for pulp," said Brian Stafford, the report's lead author.
Over the past decade, the study said, the nation's imports of waste-paper had increased five-fold, making it the world's biggest consumer of the material.
"In the last four years alone, China has prevented 65 million tonnes of waste-paper from heading to landfills in the US, Japan and Europe," Mr Stafford added.
But he warned that recycling was unlikely to meet the demand for raw materials from the rapidly expanding sector.
"Waste-paper can only provide so much fibre, and with huge new paper mills coming online in China, there is a legitimate concern that future growth in the industry is going to happen at the expense of already stressed natural forests in the tropics.
"The biggest environmental challenge... is to prevent demand for fibre from driving ever more forest destruction in places like Indonesia and eastern Russia," Mr Stafford warned.
The report called on producers to adopt systems to track pulp and pulpwood to ensure it came from "legal and sustainable" forests.
On Tuesday, China's Forestry Ministry published a draft handbook "sustainable forestry" for the nation's logging companies operating in other countries.
The ministry said the booklet would "guide and standardize Chinese companies' sustainable forestry activities overseas", the Reuters news agency reported.