Introducing Russell the Spruce

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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 can help identify recycling facilities.

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.

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.

OMG! California firsts and the recycling benefits of REMAG explained further Go

Home to nearly one eighth of the US population, it is not uncommon to see things happen first in California.  The state is known as a primary producer of grapes and there are more turkeys raised in California than any other state.  In 1947, a young woman named Norma Jean was named as the first artichoke queen in Castroville, CA.

Perhaps 2012 will be recorded as part of the state’s history for hosting the inaugural trials of the REMAG kiosks.   An innovative, new reverse vending system, REMAG is slated for trials at eight supermarket locations in the Bay Area and Central Valley.   The concept is pretty straight forward: using a kiosk system, users can redeem magazines and catalogs for rewards.

Last week, a blogger for Target Marketing, shared his thoughts on the wide variety of benefits of this program for various stakeholders including consumers, retailers, catalogers and publishers and the scrap recycling industry.  Herein I offer a few more comments on the recycling benefits.

While paper continues to be recovered for recycling at rates significantly higher than other materials (66.8% in 2011) the industry still faces many challenges and opportunities.  In particular, printing and writing grades tend to lag behind newsprint and old corrugated containers.  And - as far as I’m concerned – for no good reason.  Magazines and catalogs are fully recyclable and the vast majority of people in the US have access to recycling facilities.  I am convinced that through continued education, reminders about recycling – and now with additional incentives – consumers will learn to recycle even more paper products 

Unfortunately, there is still confusion about the recyclability of products made with coated papers.  Perhaps some confusion stems from history – there was a time that many of us were taught not to recycle “glossy” papers and some of that stigma remains today.  This is one of the reasons I am so passionate about the use of “please recycle” claims and logos on printed piecesAnd it’s one of the reasons that I’m excited about REMAG:  The program will serve to help re-educate people about the recyclability of magazines and catalogs. 

For papermakers across many segments, getting fiber of good quality is a growing challenge – in great part because of continued growth of municipal systems where everything recyclable goes in the same bin (known as single stream recycling).  But REMAG has the potential to help.  Better separation helps recycled fiber maintain a higher value to the market.  While many people simply think of waste paper as “one thing” – there are actually multiple grades destined for multiple uses.   (I just counted 51 different grades of paper listed at  

For those active in social media, OMG, conveys a sense of excitement.  For those in the scrap industry, OMG is Old Magazine Grades – also worthy of excitement as it has higher value than mixed papers.

OMG.  I am so totally rooting for REMAG. 

Papermakers partnering with cloud computing experts on key sustainability issues Go

There is an endless stream of information regarding the impact of e-media in the realm of communications; impacts affecting business trends – as well as environmental impacts. 

On the business front, it seems for every article I read about declining magazine ad sales or a lost title, there is a counter story about new channels driving print revenue.  Magazine publishers report that online media drives high traffic for new print subscriptions. Televisions shows and video games are leading to new titles.  In advertising, the pendulum swing that resulted in huge growth in social media spending seems to be falling back.  Focus is shifting to integration of the media mix and leveraging the strengths of both print and digital applications to drive efficacy.  At the end of the day, advertisers and communications experts want to reach their audiences, and we all absorb information in different ways.

Just as our society has long depended on paper (and will continue to do so) we simply cannot function without electronic devices.  Our papermaking operations depend on computerized control systems. Our sustainability metrics are tracked, monitored and managed using data.  Digitally stored data.  While we offer the eQ Journal in print, our eQ platform is hosted on a website and this very blog is an element of our sustainability communication strategy.

Amid a turbulent business environment, it troubles me that some marketers have opted to leverage unfounded emotional arguments (usually about saving trees) to drive users online instead of using paper.  The benefits of certain electronic applications are very clear.  Speed of use, centralized information storage and reduced costs of mailing can make transactions like paying bills seem archaic on paper.  But marketers also know that when it comes to pulling heart strings, paper works.  Ask anyone in fundraising whether they plan to discontinue their print campaigns and subsist solely on digital outreach.   

First and foremost, communication channels should be selected based on effectiveness. And, of course, we also need to consider environmental impact of our choices.

Is electronic communication “better” for the environment than printing?  The answer is far too complicated to condense into generalizations.    Every life cycle analysis that I have seen attempting to contrast “paper vs pixels” is dependent on a vast number of assumptions.   There are more exceptions than rules and thus conclusions are hard to defend no matter how hard one tries.

We certainly don’t want people feeling guilty about using trees.  Sound forest management is supported by strong markets for wood products.  But environmental impact extends beyond the forest.  Our position on this front is clear: Sappi does not promote wasteful consumption of resources—renewable or otherwise. We want our customers to use paper wisely and purposefully.  And we also want to create an understanding that one need not feel guilty about the impact on the forest when products are sourced responsibly. As an industry, we must strive to meet society’s needs for wood and paper products.   

So where does that lead us?  Rather than continuing to fight meaningless battles, how about working together to drive meaningful change?  Toward that end, we recently hosted a visit of sustainability practitioners from EMC.  Yes, EMC – the global leader in cloud computing, digital storage, big data.      

We came together to learn from each other about issues that keep sustainability practitioners awake at night: 

  • We discussed strategies for enhancing employee engagement. 
  • We explored the concept of zero waste manufacturing.
  • We talked about challenges in defining metrics that are both meaningful to stakeholders and can be translated into practice in our operations.  
  • We put our heads together over supply chain management issues and chain of custody systems. 
  • And we reviewed emerging issues surrounding water disclosure and risk management.  

Making paper has environmental impact.  As does the manufacturing of electronic devices.  And cars.  And food.  And clothing. And furniture. And so on.  The key is to source, use, and dispose of “stuff”  responsibly.

Finger-pointing never solved a problem.  But collaboration can lead to discovery.

Brunswick Stew: A model of material efficiency Go

I grew up in Massachusetts and did my undergraduate studies at the University of New Hampshire.  When I went to graduate school in Atlanta, GA it was the first time I had ever been south of the Mason-Dixon line.  As an inquisitive extrovert - always wanting to learn and eager to embrace a new culture - the first time I ate in an authentic southern restaurant I found myself inquiring, “What is Brunswick Stew?”

The waitress, no doubt feeling somewhat sorry for my ignorance, smiled and patiently replied, “Well honey, it’s everything but the squeal.”

With that, I knew it was a pork dish.  And because I’m an engineer, it also struck me that this was a very efficient use of the pig.  It actually occurred to me that if “squeal” had no mass, it might even be 100% efficient.

I often tell this story when explaining how we use wood as a resource within our paper mills.  

When roundwood (logs) first enters the woodyard at a mill, the first thing we do is remove the bark – but we don’t discard the bark, we burn it to create steam and electricity for the mill. The logs are chipped and fed to a pressure vessel (a digester) mixed with chemicals (primarily sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide) and cooked to create pulp.  In the cooking process, much research has been done to optimize the pulping yield.  Wood is a complex substrate comprised primarily of cellulose, hemi-cellulose and lignin.  You can think of this as trying to liberate the cellulose based fibers which are glued together by lignin. We gently cook the wood so as to not damage the fibers and maintain their strength.  In cooking the wood, the lignin dissolves and the fibers separate and can be used for papermaking. 

Like the bark, we don’t discard the lignin and other dissolved organic materials.  We wash it out of the pulp and then burn it to create steam and electricity for the mill.  This blend of materials, along with the chemicals used for cooking, is known as black liquor.  In addition to the organic materials we are also recovering the cooking chemicals so that we can use them over and over again in the process.  The combustion of black liquor is an essential step in the chemical recovery process and is the key to getting the rest of the squeal out of the tree.  Roughly speaking, about half of the wood entering the process ends up as paper fiber and the other half is used for energy.

This efficient use of wood is why the pulp and paper industry has such high levels of renewable energy.   Our use of bio-fuels  at Sappi (primarily woody biomass, bark and black liquor) gives us an energy profile that is over 80% renewable energy, minimizes our need for fossil fuels, and results in a low carbon footprint.

Our nation’s forests play a critical role in regard to water quality Go

Forests act to process precipitation into high quality surface waters. In fact, a recent water profile study* (see below) reports that two thirds of freshwater in the U.S. originates from forests.   Therefore society and industry have a shared interest in maintaining forests and the water resource benefits of forested land.   

But this notion does not preclude us from using trees to deliver on society’s needs for wood and paper products.  On the contrary, developing strong markets for wood products can help keep forested land forested.

Forest management programs can help minimize impacts to surface and groundwater by the use of Best Management Practices (BMPs).  For example, foresters lay out riparian zones, areas abutting waterways and ponds, that are important for soil stability and filtration.  If there is a river or a stream, loggers will create an extensive buffer strip so that there is no cutting in that area.  For water crossings, panels are placed over streams so that the water and banks are not disturbed.  For smaller streams, culverts are inserted to allow water to continually flow without having any dirt or silt enter into it.

In order to further this understanding, The Sustainable Forestry Initiative announced today that they have awarded a grant to the World Resources Institute (WRI) to research how forest certification standards help protect lakes and rivers.

WRI is working  in collaboration with the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, the Willamette Partnership, the American Forest Foundation, and others to advance investment in forests to ensure stable supplies of clean freshwater.

We can treat water with technology – but at what cost to society?   And why would we put more steel in concrete in place when our forests can do the job for us?

In other words:  more well managed forested land = more clean fresh water.


*Reference: Wiegand, P. S. et al., “Water Profiles of the Forest Products Industry and Their Utility in Sustainability Assessment”. TAPPI Journal: July 2011, p. 19-27.

Reverse vending machines offer rewards for recycling Go

The latest statistics from the EPA reveal that when it comes to recycling, we still have a long way to go – especially for certain materials.   In the US we generate over 4lb of municipal solid waste per person – every day.  And despite the growth of recycling programs, we are still only recycling about 1/3 of the waste generated.  2010 statistics show that paper leads the pack at roughly 63% recovery, followed by metals at 35%, glass at 27% and plastics at less than 10%. 

Within each material category there are some highlights – for example 67% of steel cans are recovered and we are recycling nearly half of our aluminum beverage cans.  Again, plastic lags behind other materials and even in the beverage category less than one third of plastic bottles are recycled.   In an effort to increase recycling of these materials, many programs have been developed to help incentivize recyclers.

Recycling kiosks, also sometimes referred to as “reverse vending machines” have been used primarily for collection of beverage cans and bottles.  These systems have been available and evolving since the 1980’s.  Typically installations have been located in retail outlets or grocery stores offering redemptions in cash or point systems. 

CLYNK is a recycling company with a bottle redemption system offered exclusively through Hannaford supermarkets in Maine.  This program has a unique focus on education and has developed five modules to teach children about various aspects of recycling.  They have also developed an annual recycling competition for schools.  Mainers looking for drop off locations can search here.

Waste Management developed Greenopolis - a point based system for bottles and cans supported by an online community.  Users can redeem points for a broad variety of awards ranging from movie tickets to discount coupons at local resaurants.  Points can also be donated to charities.  Locations for Greenopolis kiosks across the country can be searched here

These systems are also moving beyond just beverage containers.   Recently, international furniture retailer, IKEA started installing machines to collect compact fluorescent light bulbs and batteries.   The ecoATM program, located primarily in southern California, uses kiosks to collect cell phones and MP3 players.

And despite the relatively high recovery rates for paper, not all paper products are recovered at the same rates.  The REMAG system has been developed specifically targeting magazines and catalogs.  While not yet in service, I have recently learned that the first wave of REMAG kiosks will soon be showing up in multiple locations in California.  Customers will be rewarded for recycling magazines and catalogs with multiple coupons of their choice.  And if the rewards are even close to those indicated in this video, users will not be getting pennies per item, but as much as $1.50 for a single magazine.

Advancing the paper life cycle dialog Go

Life cycle analysis (LCA) is being utilized across a breadth of industries to better understand the environmental impacts of products and services.  This is not a new tool among the scientific community.  There are LCA courses taught at colleges and universities, dissertations written, books abound, and every scientific field benefits from a credible journal. 

For those of us not subscribing to the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, BoSacks is creating much needed, broader visibility to this issue through his blog and newsletter.  As is the mysterious writer behind the Dead Tree Edition.  And, of course, there are many others.

If you are not directly involved in conducting this type of analysis, the concept is fairly straight forward.  Stuff doesn’t just exist – it comes from somewhere and has to end up somewhere - and every step along the way has some form of environmental impact.  Through Life Cycle Analysis we aim to take a systematic approach to study a given product from raw material acquisition through manufacturing, distribution, use and it’s “end of life”.  For many products (including paper) the end of life can mean disposal in a landfill, incineration or recycling. 

At a high level, I have yet to find anyone disagree with the conclusions we’ve summarized through the opening chapter of our eQTool, and reinforced most recently in a blog posting by Christine Burrow of The Sustainability Consortium.  In short, for printing and writing papers, the most significant environmental impacts are created by pulp and paper manufacturing and disposal.

If you want to convert these conclusions to actions, it’s quite simple.  Buyers should procure paper from the supplier with the smallest footprint and we all need to do our parts to keep paper products out of landfills.  Corporate marketers and the creative agencies are encouraged to use “please recycle” claims and logos and as individuals we should pay attention.

But beyond these basic tenants, the plot thickens and controversy abounds.  Our instincts tell us that if recycling is good – then using recycled fiber is also good.  Furthermore, many people will assume that if something is good, then more must be better.   But papermaking systems are complex and the use of recycled fiber is not a one size fits all solution.

In LCA lingo – many paper mills are seen as “open loop” systems.  We take recycled fiber from one grade of paper and routinely turn it into another type of paper.  For example, at our mills we utilize recycled fiber derived by deinking uncoated papers (e.g. office waste).  And our coated freesheet paper (most often found in magazines, catalogs and brochures) often gets converted into packaging grades.  Many people use the term “down cycling” to describe this type of material flow.

In contrast there are  “closed loop” systems where a product is converted back into itself - like taking an aluminum beverage can and turning it back into a beverage can. Or in the world of paper, turning a corrugated container back into a corrugated container.

To complicate things further, no two paper mills are identical.  One must consider if a product is bleached or unbleached (white or brown), whether a mill is integrated or not (i.e. does it make its own pulp or buy it), where the mill’s energy is derived from (fossil fuels or renewable sources) and so on.  At the 2010 GAA environmental workshop, the conference chair summarized LCA analysis by saying, “It’s complicated – and it depends.”  So very true.

At Sappi, we’ve studied our mills and our supply chain.  The conclusions are quite clear:  Because our mills are so well integrated - utilizing high levels of renewable energy - adding deinked pulp to our products actually raises the carbon footprint of those products.  And adding more just exacerbates the impact.  It is not an obvious conclusion, but nor is it unique.  Other coated freesheet suppliers face the same issue.

We have worked hard to educate our customers about this complexities of papermaking and will continue to do so.  And we applaud those stakeholders who make the effort to get beyond “sound bite” science and truly understand the issues.  Together we will advance the dialog and make informed choices.