Do we need legislation to help with recycling efforts? Go

Recently, two separate state laws were passed to support recycling programs for paint and mattresses.   These types of laws are known generally as extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation, wherein manufacturers are required to pay fees to support recovery and recycling efforts for their products.  To date, the laws have focused on products that are hazardous or have low recycling rates (e.g. batteries, mercury switches, fluorescent lamps).  

At first, I was somewhat surprised to see Maine joining six other states to enact this type of law for paint.   As a taxpaying resident of Portland, Maine I am allowed to drop up to 10 gallons per year of oil or enamel paint at my local recycling facility – at no charge.  For latex paint, there is clear guidance on how to solidify and dispose of leftovers.  A quick search revealed several other options within driving distance, most of which are free for local residents.  And there are many additional facilities in Maine where consumers (including non-residents) can pay for proper disposal of paint.     

In looking at the evolution of EPR it becomes clear that the driving force for the change is not just to provide access for recovery.  Rather the primary incentive is to shift the cost burden from municipalities to the producer.   And what will producers do?  Most likely they will pass the cost along to consumers.   In fact a paint law in Connecticut has resulted in a $0.75 per gallon fee for consumers.    I do anticipate that paint disposal will become more accessible if every store that sells paint must also take it back, however it remains to be seen as to whether this is a cost effective solution. 

Meanwhile people are studying two programs in Canada (Ontario and British Columbia) that have used this type of legislation to cover commonly recycled materials including packaging and printed materials. And there are efforts underway to look at similar legislation in the US.  Our trade association is monitoring the development of these laws closely in an effort to understand how this may affect the pulp and paper industry.  It is arguable that we simply don’t need EPR for paper products. The recovery rate for paper has exceeded 60% since 2009.  And nearly 70% of US households have access to paper recycling facilities (either curbside or drop off).

Of course, a strong recovery rate alone doesn’t prevent a municipality from looking for ways to cut costs of recycling programs.  But, for paper, municipalities should be reaping benefits as the markets for recovered paper are very strong.  In fact paper markets are so competitive that roughly 40% of recovered paper is exported to meet the high demands of overseas customers.

There are still paper products destined for landfills and much effort underway to identify and expand solutions for “hard to recycle” products such as wax coated board or soiled paper (like napkins or food contaminated packing).  There are a host of alternatives to recycling, including composting programs and waste-to-energy solutions.  The key is to maximize recycling where possible and continue to develop a portfolio of solutions for other products or hard to reach locations.

As individuals it behooves us all to understand these issues so that we don’t see costs simply shift from our taxes to potentially end up as inflated fees levied at the store shelves.  For commonly recycled materials like paper and paperboard, I believe we are best suited to rely on the market based programs that exist.  Collectively we need to continue to find the best means for keeping other paper based products out of landfills.  We can do better.

How many times can paper fiber be recycled? Go

It is well understood that paper fibers cannot be recycled indefinitely.  The US EPA indicates that papers can be recycled an estimated 4-7 times and the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry (TAPPI) cites 5-7 times.  The range of reuse depends on both the type of fiber and the subsequent treatment of that fiber.  Longer stronger fibers, like softwood kraft fibers used in paper bags, will generally survive longer than a shorter weaker fiber - such as a mechanically pulped hardwood used in newsprint and some magazine grades.

How many times “does” a paper fiber get recycled?

Keeping fiber available for re-use is based on two key metrics - the recovery rate (collection) of different paper products and the subsequent yield in processing.

There is ample data to show that different paper products are recovered at different rates.  Corrugated containers lead the charge at over 90% while the rate for printing and writing grades is just about 55%. 

When it comes to processing yield, again there are vast differences by product category.  Paperboard manufacturers cite yields of 95% or better. According to Ron Fox of paperboard manufacturer, Graphic Packaging International, “When we reuse the fiber, we’re basically just filtering out the non-fibrous, extraneous materials like plastics and metal.  We keep all the fiber and additives.  So when we’re making containerboard or boxboard, at the lowest our yield is about 90%.  Generally we yield about 97% 98%.”  The key to the higher yield is to keep the processing to a minimum.  Says, Fox, “We don’t deink it, we don’t bleach it, we don’t do anything to degrade that fiber”. (Cited on p. 16 in “Rethinking Recycling”)

At the other end of the spectrum, products such as our coated fine papers require a much cleaner, purer fiber.  Cleaning, filtering and processing recovered fiber to meet the tough standards of graphic paper applications requires additional energy and chemicals to raise its quality and separate the fiber from materials such as adhesives, clay and ink.  Deinking facilities that produce fibers for use in graphic paper routinely report lower yields – around 70% - with some sources reporting yields as low as 52%.

When we combine the effects of recovery rates and yields, we find that a significant portion of fiber never sees a second use.  For example, if we start with 100 tons of office paper fiber and only 55% is collected and then 30% is lost in deinking, less than 40% of the fiber actually ends up recycled after just a single round of recovery and processing.  

(100 x 0.55 x 0.7 = 38.5) 

So what can we do to keep more fiber in the system?

Step 1. Collect more

As a society we should strive for the highest collection possible. This is one of the reasons we are so passionate about using “please recycle” logos on printed materials.

Step 2. Waste less fiber

We need to face the facts.  Clearly paperboard manufacturing is a better use of recycled fiber than premium printing and writing grades.  It is important that procurement policies and decisions allow fiber to get put to its best use where it will have higher yield and less environmental impact. 


If you want the deep, deep dive on what happens to fibers in recycling, check out this peer reviewed paper by a group of professors at NC State.  In their summary they say “…recycling of paper involves many compromises” and “it can be quite complicated to determine the most appropriate, and even the most ethical way to deal with recycling of paper.”


As my 2013 eco-resolution I pledged to recycle more plastic bags and clear film.  I’ll provide an update on my progress in a future post; in the meantime, check out this video to see what happens at a bag recycling facility.

A great video to help promote Recyclemania – an intercollegiate challenge to promote recycling on college campuses.  

I love that concept that recyclables have aspirations for premium brand re-use.  It makes me wonder how much paper is out there dreaming to be used as fiber furnish in McCoy one day.

Recycling Coordinators: Don’t underestimate the power of good signage Go

I have often heard it said that the biggest barriers to increasing recycling rates are access and education.  You have to have both or it simply won’t work.

Let’s not forget that people are busy and often distracted.  So we don’t just need to have bins available, people need clear directions on how to use them.

The fact that systems are not uniform adds complexity.  We may face one program at work (e.g. office paper only) and another at home (glass and plastics in one bin/ paper in another) and another at the local park (bottles and cans only) and yet another at the airport. Then to top it all off, we visit our local green grocer and we’re faced with composting options as well.

So while recycling is not rocket science, it can be frustrating when faced with the simple dilemma of whether or not you can recycle your plastic cup.  If you are responsible for a recycling program, your signage can help.   In a previous post I mentioned a favorite sign for paper recycling, spotted at BU:  “If you can rip it – recycle it”.   More tips from the experts here.

Above I’ve captured a picture taken at my favorite coffee shop in Portland, ME.  Missing from the picture is a dish bin to the left.  They use real cups and plates for food service (reducing waste by re-using dishes) and then have a great recycling and composting program in place.

Have you seen BMW’s multi-media sustainability campaign? Go

Sustainability practitioners, take note: Hand puppets made of waste creating awareness about recycling.  You gotta love it!

BMW has a section in their corporate sustainability platform entitled “What’s next?”.  I first came across the series when I spotted a full page ad in the  November 21 edition of The New Yorker Magazine.  I thought it was so great I tore it out to share with my co-workers and herein. 

The ad I discovered features the story of Lisa Pirwitz, an employee at BMW’s plant in Spartanburg, SC.  It talks about how the plant’s “Green-Team” established a goal to recycle 100% of the assembly production waste.  The copy reads:  To pique people’s interest in her project, Lisa recently enlisted the help of two unusual spokespeople: a pair of hand puppets made of production waste.”

You can see the puppets in action if you visit their website  (which I was inspired to do) and look for the recycling video. You’ll also see the rest of the “What’s next?” series including stories on renewable energy, zero emissions vehicles and other topics.

This is a great example of print and electronic communications working together to drive a clear and important message about the company, about the possibilities of recycling and more; all while celebrating the power of creative employee engagement activities. 

(Please note: this is not meant to be a Sappi endorsement of BMW’s products - nor do I drive a BMW - but this ad makes me want to!)

Environmental logos and certifications for paper Go

In yesterday’s post I wrote about the rationale behind eco-logos and illustrated the difference between self-generated claims and certifications. Now let’s take a closer look at claims for paper.

Here’s an example of a self-declaration regarding the environmental attributes of paper:  Paper is made from renewable resources with high levels of renewable energy and is recyclable. 

If you trust me and/or my credentials this statement alone might make you feel comfortable about using paper.  It is hard to imagine a material with a stronger sustainability position.  However, it is undeniable that not all paper mills have the same environmental footprint, and not every company sources their wood fiber responsibly. Herein lies the value of certification programs. 

Let’s break down my statement one element at a time.

Renewable resources: 

Within the wood and paper products industry it is well understood that stakeholders want assurance that forest management practices are in place to protect forests and verify that the source of wood fiber indeed gets renewed and stays as a working forest.  Several international standards have emerged and our mills maintain chain of custody certifications for the three leading programs: FSC, SFI and PEFC.  If the chain of custody is maintained all the way from the forest to the print shop floor, projects printed on our papers can carry labels representing these certification programs.  At the consumer level, the label helps to convey the fact the wood was sourced responsibly.  These labels are also being seen in the solid wood markets on products ranging from timber (e.g. 2x4’s) to cabinetry, flooring, and furniture.

High levels of renewable energy:

When a papermaking facility is integrated (the pulp mill attached to the paper mill) wood waste and by-products are incinerated to generate steam.  That steam is then passed across a turbine to generate electricity and the remaining steam is used to turn mechanical shafts and provide thermal energy throughout the mill.  This co-generation of steam and electricity makes integrated mills highly efficient as compared to electric utilities that discard waste heat.  While I have yet to find a certification standard that has developed a program for overall energy claims, there are multiple standards that exist regarding the use of renewable energy for electricity.  These programs are based on the generation and trading of renewable energy certificates (REC’s).  The chemical recovery boilers at Sappi’s coated fine paper mills are both certified in accordance with the Green-e standard and we are therefore able to make claims in the marketplace that 100% of the electricity for certain products is certified renewable energy.  If a printer is also using certified REC’s the final product can carry a Green-e label explaining that both the paper and the printing utilized 100% certified electricity.


While recycling has been around since the first paper mills landed in the US, there is still much confusion regarding the recyclability of certain grades.  For a product to carry a broad claim of recyclability, at least 60% of users must have access to a facility that can recycle the product.  Otherwise a claim should be supported by an additional clarifying statement such as “where facilities exist”.  For coated fine papers, the groundwork has been covered and it is appropriate to make these claims.  However, to my knowledge there is no third party certification for “please recycle claims”.  Several trade associations have developed logo programs including the MPA’s “Please recycle this magazine” the DMA’s “Recycle Please” blue bin logo and the EMA’s “Please recycle this envelope” program.  We have also made hi res icons available for download here.

How do we get everyone to recycle more? Go

Here are a few thoughts:  Make it fun.  Make it easy.  Make it pay.

Yesterday I posted a video that showed how rigging up a bottle collection site with music and lights helped increase attention and drive higher recycling rates.   Competitions are another great way to foster team spirit and motivate entire organizations.  Programs like Recyclemania, the EPA’s Game Day Challenge and the AF&PA Recycling Awards have helped schools, businesses and communities throughout the country.

Nothing makes recycling easier than single stream collection.  While concerns are mounting over contamination and hidden costs, there is no doubt that single stream recycling is growing.  Put everything in a single bin.  No need to separate.  No need to over think it.  Similarly, one can’t estimate the power of simple reminders.  I spoke at a class at Boston University last week and couldn’t help but notice their recycling signage and multiple locations of bins throughout the facility.  My favorite sign read “Paper:  If you can rip it, you can recycle it”.  How much easier does it get?  (Go Terriers!)

There is great value in recycled materials.  The entire Scrap Recycling Industry is based on this simple premise.  From electronic waste to newspapers – these materials are resources.  Even the EPA tries to discourage the use of the term “waste” when it comes to defining recycled fiber.  Companies have long understood that projects focused on minimizing waste to landfill create returns that drop straight to the bottom line.  Avoiding cost of waste disposal on one hand and, while generating revenue by selling materials.  Getting individuals to think of used products as “resources” instead of “waste streams” is tied to making the economic incentives clear.  Ten states have enacted bottle bills to help encourage recycling of beverage containers.  And while I have single stream recycling and live in a state with a bottle bill – I separate my cans and bottles and donate them to local charities.

As a nation, we’ve made enourmous strides in recycling – especially when it comes to paper.  But we still have huge opportunities for improvement.  So in honor of America Recycles Day, think about some way to make a positive change.  Get to work on that recycling flash mob video that you’ve been thinking of.  Buy another recycling bin for your office lobby. Dream up a poster competition with awards for the winners.  It all adds up to make a difference!


Test your recycling IQ and more! Go

The American Forest and Paper Association maintains a fantastic website on paper recycling.  At you can

And more…

A personal call to action regarding recycling Go

When I make presentations to corporate marketers, my first call to action is to ask them to consider using a “please recycle” claim or logo on printed pieces.  We all need to do whatever we can to encourage recycling and keep paper products out of landfills.  Collectively our efforts are increasing recovery rates for paper.

But for those of us not in corporate marketing, here’s a simple way we can all make a difference: keep your plastic bags out of single stream recycling bins!

Whether you have curb side collection or are dropping recyclables at a collection center, you need to keep those bags out of the bins.   The bags are recyclable, but they really need to be collected separately.  Plastic bags wreak havoc on separation equipment at material recovery facilities (MRFs).  And I got to see this first hand on recent visits to two different facilities.

In addition to the challenges related to bags, I also saw the following items pass by on a conveyor belt: a string of Christmas tree lights, gym socks, and a bag of grapes.  Really?  Come on people.  It’s not that hard.

If you don’t know what is or isn’t recyclable you can usually find the information by searching for your local municipal recycling facility.  And if you have something that can’t be collected curbside there are recycling drop off centers for almost everything: electronics, batteries, books, clothing, construction materials, etc.  is a great search engine for finding collection sites nationwide.

I am absolutely not advising that you put your plastic bags in the trash.  Many retailers (most grocery stores) have collection boxes for bags.  So if you take just one thing away from this message that’s it: keep plastic bags out of your recycling bins and recycle them separately.