Paper, recycling and sustainability
Paper and cardboard production, recovery and recycling
are multi-faceted processes involving many issues including recycling,
energy consumption and green house gas emissions.
An enormous amount of paper is consumed daily in the United States, says
Don Carli, senior research fellow with the Institute for Sustainable
Communication (ISC), and how to best deal with it once it reaches the
waste stream is still awaiting an optimum solution.
“Counties and cities know the difference between landfill diversion and
recycling,” he says. “What they are generally encouraged to do is to
increase the diversion rate, not to increase the recycling rate.
“The system we have in the United States today is designed to make it
easy for the consumer to feel good about recycling,” he adds. “We allow
consumers to equate putting something into a recycling bin with recycling.
They don’t think about closing the loop and incorporating into that thinking
the fact that recycling actually means to divert it from landfills as
a raw material feedstock for a manufacturing process to make a similar
product. They don’t know that and it has not been encouraged enough.”
However, Carli does see signs of hope, particularly as Time Incorporated
recently added New York City to its ReMix program - http://www.nrc-recycle.org/remix.aspx,
a program started in Boston, that encourages consumers to recycle their
“Its an important development, but are those magazines likely to be recycled
eco-effectively? There is a vast difference between the energy used when
waste paper is recovered, de-inked and recycled in an integrated mill
within 400 miles of the recovery facility versus having it de-inked,
dried and shipped as pulp to a papermaker that is 2,000 miles away, or
when it is shipped to China to be ‘down-cycled’ into cardboard.
“These scenarios are all lumped together in current definition of recycling
in consumer and business eyes,” he adds, “but they have vastly different
energy profiles, carbon footprints, and lifecycle and social impacts.”
Carli notes that single-stream recycling collection has become the norm
because it makes it easier for the consumer and the companies providing
the recovery services.
“But it doesn’t make it easier for the paper companies and the MRF that
has recycling as their goal,” he says. “If their goal is diversion and
they can find a buyer from China to purchase their unsorted waste for
more, they can make more money. Foreign buyers of waste paper are willing
to pay more because they can get dead-head containers heading west for
practically nothing and then put the material into some of the most sophisticated,
advanced paper mills in the world with labor that is paid far less and
provided with far fewer benefits that those in the United States.
“Shame on us for not making better use of our paper waste streams,” he
stresses. “That resource is being squandered and our paper making industry
has thus far failed to respond.”
However, Carli says that some measures are being taken by the domestic
industry to utilize this resource.
“Pratt Industries has a paper mill in Staten Island that recovers waste
paper for New York City and uses it to produce liner board,” he says.
“We have examples of businesses that take waste from the urban forest.
In the Staten Island case, it is down-cycled, not truly recycled because
they are not making premium writing grade paper with the paper that they
recover. But it is not being shipped to China at considerable fossil
“All too often, we are not aware of the fact that replacing paper media
with digital media is not without energy costs and environmental impacts,”
he adds. “There are times when it is a waste to print when you can see
it on the screen, but even when you use digital media, it’s important
to consider that computers don’t grow on trees and it requires a constant
flow of electrons to view the pages. Most people are not aware of the
energy required to provide the infrastructure that allows them to enjoy
According to 2006 statistics from the United States Energy Information
Administration, the paper making industry consumed approximately 75 billion
kilowatt hours of electricity – the second most energy intense business
in North America.
Carli says that waste paper is America’s single largest export, particularly
due to China’s demand for the product.
“China does not have fiber sources and they are more than willing to
pay for our fiber,” he says. “The irony in North America is that we have
not been building new paper mills (and) recovered de-inking capacity
is not keeping up with our demand. We say that we want more recycled
content, but it hasn’t resulted in support for industry investment in
new infrastructure to provide that recycling capacity.
“In the past five years,” he adds, “China has built more paper mills
than we have in the past decade. We have not built anything in that period.
Nine Dragons alone has built six mills in the past five years and they
are the most sophisticated, highly automated state-of-the-art mills in
“De-inking takes a lot of chemistry and the waste streams associated
with it are problematic,” he adds. “It is a lot simpler to recover paper
and not have to bleach it. We need to improve the technology and help
meet the growing demand by consumers for recycled content.”
Carli is confident that the paper industry can create industrial ecologies
and business practices that will allow for sustainable harvesting of
timber and recycling.
“The challenge is always how to effect that transformation in a way that
is not only orderly and economically viable, but also environmentally
restorative and socially constructive,” he says. “Unless we change the
way in which the paper making, printing advertising, publishing and mailing
industries source energy and materials, process and distribute primary
and secondary products, and recover those products at the end of their
useful lives as resources, we miss a major opportunity to address the
fundamental challenges of climate change and sustainability before us.”