Increasing paper recycling in the United States
Having achieved a record-breaking recycling rate for paper products in the United States in 2006, the American Forest & Paper Association is now in a good position to determine best practices and what steps it should take to build on that success to further improve the recycling rate.
The AF&PA is a critical player in the paper recovery process and American Recycler recently spoke with acting AF&PA president and CEO Donna Harman for her take on the situation.
Question: What are the biggest challenges facing the paper recycling industry?
Harman: The biggest challenge is securing enough supply of recovered fiber to meet the needs of a growing market. We are facing a lot of export demand, particularly from China, and the export numbers increased dramatically between 1999 and 2006. This trend will likely continue as China’s paper industry develops further.
Public awareness really is the best tool we have for changing peoples’ behavior, getting more and more of them to participate in recycling programs, and increasing recovery rates.
Question: Are you satisfied with the paper recovery rate?
Harman: In 2003 we set the goal of achieving a 55 percent recovery rate by 2012 and we are already nearly there. In 2006, we hit the highest number ever – 53.4 percent – up 7.4 percent from the 46 percent recovered in 2000. So, the education measures and on-the-ground programs that we have and working with various partners that run these programs, are effective.
The 55 percent goal is our key priority. Another of our priorities is supporting efforts that help us with obtaining a clean supply of recovered paper. A lot of times in recycling programs, some of this material becomes contaminated with food or glass that is really harmful to the recycling process and then that material cannot be used. So, we also support efforts by private companies to ensure a clean supply.
Question: Once the 55 percent recovery rate goal is achieved, will you establish a higher bar?
Harman: We’re looking at that question now. Our companies have been discussing and talking about what is practical and what is the next level we should aspire to achieve. We don’t have an agreement around that yet, but companies are trying to make some assessment of what they think is realistic. One key thing you have to look at is that as recovery increases, the amount of contaminated paper does as well. There comes a point where you have diminishing returns, so the higher we get, the more difficult it becomes. There are also some grades that you cannot simply recycle.
Question: Do you want to see more residential curbside recycling programs in the U.S.?
Harman: There are some places where they are under utilized, but drop-off centers also have an important place, especially in areas of the country where they do not have curbside programs. A number of our members have their own programs or have partnerships with others who have similar programs to encourage drop-off recycling.
The process of paper recycling also has to be cost effective, and it may not be cost effective in every community to have curbside programs. We are looking for a total solution, not a one-size-fits-all solution.
Question: Would you like to see a national paper recycling program?
Harman: Again, that goes back to this being a local issue. The paper is where the people live and a national set of guidelines will not respect the different localities and differences in the markets of these locations. Recycling programs work best in large population centers. In smaller population centers, you have to use different tools. We can encourage everyone to be involved and engaged in the process.
If you look at recycling in general, paper actually has one of the highest rates of recovery and putting it back into new products. We have a great track record and it doesn’t seem to us that the government needs to get involved with demanding more from us.
Question: Would passing the RISE tax legislation be beneficial to the paper recycling industry and what are you doing to promote its passage by Congress?
Harman: We support the RISE Act and we are working to get co-sponsors on that legislation. We are working Senator Olympia Snow (R-ME) and Senator Tom Carper (D-DE). We are also working with many recycling organizations and industries across the nation. The National Recycling Coalition is a terrific organization that helps to provide some important and effective networks and the AF&PA participates in those ongoing processes and discussions.
Question: Will bans on plastic grocery and shopping bags help the paper industry?
Harman: Where civic leaders can encourage the use of more paper bags, that is a positive, and paper bags are largely made out of recycled material. They can be recycled and re-used because they are strong. Paper bags play a positive role in the hierarchy of both re-use and recycling.
Question: Are you confident that there will be an increased use of recovered paper?
Harman: There is a general environmental awareness in the country and a lot of companies want to use recycled paper because it demonstrates that they are responsible environmental stewards and that is good for paper recycling. There is a strong sense among Americans that we should be responsible for the environment and that is a sentiment we tap into with our 55 percent recovery goal. It makes good business and environmental sense to recycle and it’s a win-win for both business and society.