APRIL 2012

Paper use on long-term downward trend

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Americans’ use of paper has been declining for years in a shift with important implications for the recycling industry, because paper is one of the most recycled materials. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that the amount of paper and paperboard in the municipal waste stream peaked at 87.7 million tons in 2000 and fell steadily to 68.4 million tons in 2009 before rebounding slightly to 71.3 million tons in 2010.

That blip in the last year could be good news for paper producers and recyclers. According to the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), some of the falloff in recent years is due to a softer economy, which affected demand for office papers in particular. The growth, according to the Washington, D.C.-based group, is due to continued strong containerboard and paperboard markets and an increase in tissue demand.

“Although the prolonged weakened U.S. economy has affected office papers, overall demand for paper-based products is holding steady due to strong containerboard and paperboard markets as well as an increase in tissue demand,” according to AF&PA spokesperson Jessica McFaul. The forest products industry’s growth prospects are important for the overall economy. The industry accounts for about 5 percent of total U.S. manufacturing, producing $190 billion in products annually and employing nearly 900,000 – more than automotive, chemicals and plastics.

However, it’s of even more concern to recyclers. And the trends from that perspective aren’t all good. For instance, one of the few bright spots for paper right now is “human papers,” primarily tissue and specialty pulp used in baby diapers and adult incontinence and feminine hygiene products. These sectors are particularly strong in exports to emerging economies in Latin America and the Far East.

The resilience of human papers was confirmed when Nitro, a San Francisco maker of software for reading and creating digital documents surveyed 1,000 Americans about paper use. It discovered only 6.1 percent were willing to reduce toilet paper consumption in the next 5 to 10 years.

But human tissue products are not likely to generate much recyclable material. And other paper uses aren’t looking healthy. The Nitro survey showed 43.7 percent of those asked said they would use half the amount of paper they use now within 5 to 10 years. Twenty-six percent expected to use a quarter of the amount of paper they use now. Just 23.7 percent said they planned to use the same amount of paper they use now. Most interestingly of all, 6.5 percent indicated they would use no paper at all.

However, office paper use probably won’t reach zero any time soon. “We’ve all been talking about the paperless office for a long time,” said Nitro communications manager Nick Chandler. “But in reality, outside Fortune 500 companies, most companies are working with physical paper pretty extensively.”

In the last few years, the electronic connectivity of the average worker and consumer has risen sharply with the proliferation of smartphones hooked up to the cellular network and tablet computers connected through wireless Wi-Fi networks. “People have access to their documents and colleagues from pretty much everywhere across a lot of devices,” Chandler said. “And the tools are getting easy enough to use that people are using them.”

In addition to convenience, another force pushing against paper is sustainability. “The environmental cause as a whole has been more prominent the last 10 years,” said Chandler. “Sixty-one percent of Americans consider reducing paper consumption for environmental reasons to be important. That’s a pretty big number.”

Plans for paper use are down across nearly all categories, according to the Nitro survey. For example, 60 percent of respondents were willing to reduce use of physical mail to lower their paper consumption. Nearly half – 48 percent – would reduce use of printing paper, while a smaller number – 44.5 percent – were willing to cut use of paper bags.

When it came to publications, 48 percent were willing to use fewer printed newspapers, while 46 percent said the same about magazines. Business documents such as forms and contracts were likely to be used less by 38 percent. However, just 31.6 percent were anticipating reducing use of printed books.

Another view paper isn’t likely to ever disappear comes from an AF&PA survey of Millennials, the group of 50 million Americans currently aged 18 to 30. Seventy-eight percent of Millennials surveyed couldn’t imagine life without paper, and 89 percent said that despite technology advances, they doubted they’d ever give up paper.

This group of young consumers sees paper documents as having significant advantages over electronic, digital documents. For instance, they feel paper is more secure. It also provides more credibility. For these reasons, 83 percent want paper diplomas, 75 percent prefer paper business cards and 75 percent want paper contracts and other documents requiring signatures.

Words are seen as easier to read on printed paper than those displayed on a screen. For this reason, 78 percent prefer paper books and 71 percent choose printed magazines. When it comes to newspapers, the balance was almost even, with a bare majority – 52 percent – declaring partiality to newsprint.

Organization also benefits when information is stored on paper, according to the AFPA survey. Paper was the ideal medium for shopping lists, according to 64 percent, while 60 percent used it for to-do lists. Fifty-seven percent wanted paper handy when taking notes for school, but at work only 52 percent thought paper was the way to go for note-taking.

Millennials, according to AF&PA, appreciate the sentimental value of paper, in forms such as birthday cards. They also like its permanence and safety. Seventy-seven percent feared digital documents could be altered without their knowledge more easily paper documents could. Sixty-three percent said they often printed out documents for their records, even when they had saved electronic versions. And a full 90 percent want hard copies of important documents available to them.

For now, recyclers are going to have to expect less to choose from when it comes to office papers, newsprint and other categories besides human tissues and packaging papers. But the trend isn’t likely to continue forever, until paper recyclers have no materials at all to work with. “The true paperless office probably is still some time away,” said Chandler. “I don’t think anyone has come up with a tool that feels as natural as marking something up with a red pen.”