It seems every few month I get an inquiry asking whether we can create a “closed loop” product for one of our customers – taking their waste paper, recycling it and making paper with recycled content for subsequent orders.
While we’ve looked at this for a wide variety of customers (large and small) in different regions (near and far) the result routinely comes up the same. In theory we could do it – but I have yet to conclude that we should do it. To understand this outcome, herein I offer an overview of our supply chain.
We make coated fine papers (for magazines, catalogs, brochures and direct mail) at our facilities in Skowhegan, ME and Cloquet, MN. These mills are fully integrated kraft mills – meaning they start with raw wood, convert it to pulp using the kraft pulping process, and then we consume the pulp on site to make paper. The vast majority of our wood is sourced within 125 miles of our mills and by-products from the pulping process (e.g. bark and black liquor) are used as renewable energy sources at the mills. The overall result is a highly efficient operations with low carbon footprints from cradle to gate.
When we utilize recycled fiber – the supply chain is altered dramatically. First off, we are limited in the type of fiber that can be processed to meet the quality needs for our products. The most common acceptable source of fiber is office waste (i.e. photocopy or desktop printer paper). This fiber has to be collected from a variety of sources and delivered to a deinking facility. For competitive purposes, we do not like to disclose our specific suppliers, but a quick Internet search will reveal that there is a limited number of deinked pulp suppliers within North America.
Deinking of paper is a multi-stage process that involves screening, flotation deinking, cleaning and bleaching of fibers. While the total energy consumption of this process is lower than kraft pulping – our suppliers utilize primarily purchased electricity and fossil fuels – which ultimately results in a higher carbon footprint than our virgin kraft pulp. (Its important to remember that greenhouse gas emissions are tied not only to how much energy is utilized, but what type of energy is utilized – for more info, see Chapter 2 of our eQ Tool) Once the paper is processed into deinked pulp (DIP) it is dried and put into bales for transportation to our mills.
To complicate matters further, our DIP suppliers source from multiple paper stock vendors. They are not waste haulers nor do they operate material recovery facilities (MRFs – commonly pronounced as “murfs”). One of our suppliers reportedly sources scrap materials up to 1500 miles away from their facility. So connecting of our customers to one of our deinked pulp suppliers is possible – but not as straight forward as one might think.
The current demand for scrap paper exceeds supply. If we can keep paper out of landfills it will get consumed – either domestically or overseas. (There is a large and growing demand for our fiber; especially in China).
So, rather than trying to force connections within the supply chain – I offer the following advice to customers: If you want to “close the loop” on your paper usage – think more holistically than your own consumption. To measure attempts toward closure – you can keep track of what you purchase and recycle. Consider setting goals for zero waste or 100% recovery. But don’t focus on making sure your scrap fiber ends up in back your paper products. Instead, it is more important to be sure that it gets recycled as efficiently as possible.