JUNE 2008

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.

Don Carli

“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 magazines.

“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 fuel expense.

“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 digital media.”

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 the world.

“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.”