Long before the first Earth Day and before resource conservation was a widespread passionate cause, the rag pickers and peddlers who called on shops, factories and homeowners to collect their discards laid the foundation for the 21st century’s paper recycling industry.

From the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Issue of Recycling Today Magazine (July 2013) 

Click here to see the full article written by editor Brian Taylor

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.

Here is another fantastic example of a single stream recovery facility.  These videos provide direct insight into how commingled recyclables are separated at material recovery facilities.  It is also important to recognize the amount of manual labor that is still involved in these processes - a great reminder to all of us to be conscious of what we put in the bins.

As my primary 2012 eco-resolution, I pledged to work harder on recycling plastic bags and film.  This photo shows results of three months of collection (January through March).  If you look closely, you’ll see food storage bags, grocery bags, newspaper bags, poly bags from magazines and more.  While I made no attempt to quantify the sources, think the bulk of what’s captured is from dry-cleaning. 

As my primary 2012 eco-resolution, I pledged to work harder on recycling plastic bags and film.  This photo shows results of three months of collection (January through March).  If you look closely, you’ll see food storage bags, grocery bags, newspaper bags, poly bags from magazines and more.  While I made no attempt to quantify the sources, think the bulk of what’s captured is from dry-cleaning. 

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.

What is your new year’s eco-resolution? Go

For many of us, the transition to a new year causes pause for reflection and inspires goal setting.  I have seen several stories listing “top ten” resolutions for 2013 and it likely comes as no surprise that spending more time with friends, losing weight, and giving up vices rank high on such lists.  But I did not see much concern for the environment revealed in these lists.  At the start of 2013 we also found ourselves teetering at the edge of the fiscal cliff.  So herein, I offer a handful of suggestions for eco-resolutions that can have a positive impact on the environment and also create financial savings.

1. Invest in better light bulbs.  If you are still using incandescent bulbs you are missing out on some low hanging fruit.  According to the Energy Star website:

If every American home replaced just one light bulb with a light bulb that’s earned the ENERGY STAR, we would save enough energy to light 3 million homes for a year, save about $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to those from about 800,000 cars.

2. Drive less.  Think about carpooling, using public transportation or better yet – bike or walk to work if you can. All of these options will no doubt save money on gas, parking and car maintenance while reducing CO2 emissions.    According to the EPA’s Household Carbon Footprint Calculator, the average US vehicle is driven 240 miles per week, emitting 12,500 lbs of CO2 per year. 

3. Consider your water bill.  I fixed a leaky toilet recently and found that a one-time $7.00 investment will return over $15.00 in savings each year.  Plus that annoying sound of the tank refilling goes away.  If you are looking for other ways to reduce your water footprint, consider the impact of washing (and drying) clothes.   A life cycle study analysis (LCA) conducted by Levi’s found that a pair of jeans consumes over 900 gallons of water in its lifetime (roughly half of which is consumed in the supply chain and the other half from washing). They also found that 50% of the climate impact of a pair of jeans can be saved by washing in cold water and then hanging them to dry.

4. Drink tap water.  If you don’t have a refillable water bottle by now, it’s time to splurge.   At one point the Grand Canyon National Park found that 20% of their waste stream was comprised of disposable plastic bottles. In an effort to reduce their waste handling costs, they banned the sale of bottled water within the park and installed free water filling stations.  They also make affordable souvenir bottles available for visitors.  Water quality in the US is outstanding.  I am personally not in favor of banning bottled water because I think it’s a great alternative to other drinks for people on the go.  But when you can drink tap water, it’s a cost effective option that can reduce consumption of packaging materials.  

5. Recycle more.  We’re getting better and better about recycling paper products in the US – but there are still many opportunities for improvements.  I personally don’t think I can do much better with paper, but my own goal for 2013 is to focus on plastic bags and especially plastic films.  Many towns have implemented Pay-As-You-Throw systems for household waste - charging for trash bags whereas recycling is free.  So every little bit helps and, for me, focusing on plastic is my next recycling frontier.   What’s yours?

Check out this video - another good overview of a single stream recycling facility. Take note of the challenges to the system and do your part to keep these items out: plastic bags, string, rope and over-sized plastic items.  

I thought it was interesting that they don’t accept glass at this facility - I can only imagine that they don’t have a market for the materials.  They also call out the primary end uses for recovered, mixed paper: newspaper, cardboard boxes, tissue and insulation.

Overcoming barriers to recycling Go

For recycling in general, the major barriers for increasing recovery rates are access and education.  In other words, people need to understand what can be recycled and where.  While most of us quickly become familiar with recycling programs at home, we may experience different programs at work and in public venues.  Or worse yet, we may not have access to recycling in some places.

For paper products specifically, the US is at an all time high recovery rate.  In fact,  paper recovery increased by 1.2 million tons in 2011, lifting the recovery rate to a record-high 66.8 percent. That’s up from 63.5 percent in 2010 and 33.5 percent in 1990. 

Digging deeper into data reveals that printing and writing grades lag behind other products like corrugated containers.  As an industry segment, we can, and should do better.   While some paper products can never be recycled (e.g. hygiene products like bathroom tissue and towel)  all of Sappi’s coated fine papers can and should be recycled.  And 87% of Americans have access to curbside or drop-off paper recycling programs.  So recycling of magazines and catalogs is not limited to access, but perhaps simply by awareness.   For this reason we are strong supporters of recycling education and outreach and encourage corporate marketers and graphic designers to use “please recycle” claims and logos on all printed pieces. 

If you are unsure whether something can be recycled the best solution is to seek out information rather than err toward landfilling.  Resources like earth911.com can help identify recycling facilities.

Yesterday’s post featured an animated video of single stream recycling.  Now here’s the real deal.  Take note of the hand sorting, and next time you head to the recycling bin think about the people down stream.  More thoughts at THIS link.