Recycling, Demand and Digital Media Slash Paper Waste

waste paper recycling bailsRecycling + Digital Media + Demand for Sustainable products = Results

These three societal components make fast friends in the goal of reducing paper consumption. After peaking in 2000, disposal of paper products is finally showing the wear of a more conscious effort to curb the amount of paper that finds its way to landfills and reduce the amount of virgin trees harvested for new stock.

Labels branding paper-based products with recycled content have become increasingly common over the past half decade. A look through my own cupboards yields a box of Honey Nut Cheerios from General Mills that claims “100% Recycled Paperboard.” Then there’s some oatmeal from Quaker that says the same thing. Nutra-Grain Bars, Mac & Cheese, Rice a Roni, Triscuts: all from different brands and all claim the 100% recycled fiber status with most claiming a minimum of 35% post-consumer material content.

The reasonable conclusion (aside from the fact that I’m fond of starches) is that recycled pulp is becoming the norm. If all of these corporate behemoths are removing 35% of their demand for new paper fiber then that constitutes a sizable amount of paper on the national scale. Market research seems to concur, with data showing that global demand for sustainable paper is forecast to increase from its current level around 16.8 million tons to 24.8 million by 2016.

For many of us, all of this begs the question: is all of this making a difference? It’s one thing to print labels and pat each other on the back for good intentions, but are we actually stemming the demand for virgin trees and reducing the amount of paper in landfills? The answer seems to be yes.

According to the EPA, we produced 87.7 million tons of paper-based trash in 2000, comprising 36.4% of our total municipal solid waste stream. In 2009, the number dropped to 68.43 million tons—a decline of 21%. The last time we saw numbers like that was in the 1980’s.

Recycling does work, but some credit does belong to our migration towards digital media. Everyday brings more hype about the conversion to the digital age and the responding blow to the printed word. Printed circulation of magazines and newspapers have been slashed across the country, declining to levels unseen for decades and no one expects them to rebound. Then again, digital media devices and the internet that serves as their blood stream brings different, but very material waste repercussions of its own. Snail mail is another victim of digitized information. The U.S. Postal Service delivered 171 billion pieces of mail in 2010, down from 207.5 billion in 2001.

Rising Demand. Maybe too much?

brown paper roll

As a country we are unquestionably reclaiming more paper from the waste stream. Sources across the board agree that Americans recycled 63.4% of their paper consumed in 2009, up from 45.4% in 2000. At the same time, most of that material does not stay local, but sails across the Pacific to China where forests are more sparse and recycling is less successful (apparently China recycles only 30% of its own paper). Recycled paper is one of our largest exports to China in terms of volume, totaling $20.3 billion in 2010. In 2008 over half of the top 21 exporters of shipping containers were paper companies that sell their stake in this waste stream to the Far East where it is recycled into cardboard and used to package all of the goodies that they sell back to us.

On one hand this is good news. Demand has pushed the price of waste paper higher, making it more economical for waste haulers to separate trash and sell its components on a more robust market rather than dumping it into a dark, deep hole in the ground. This allows for recycling programs across the country to become more viable. The flip side is that the high price of recycled raw material makes it that much more expensive for American companies to put it back into their products—or even produce it for that matter. Like almost everything else, recycled paperboard is cheaper to produce in China than it is here.

Now more than ever is it essential that we recycle every scrap of paper that we can to feed the demand of a growing marketplace instead of making it more expensive to be more sustainable.

More Change on the Horizon

Polling and data collection seem to be pointing towards more good news ahead. In February, paper and pulp producer Domtar Corp reported lackluster earnings results. One of the largest producers of uncoated freesheet paper in North America, Domtar predicted a decline in long term demand in for paper products in North America—which is good, considering we consume more of it than any other country in the world. It may come as little surprise, but much like our consumption rate of fresh water, the United States and it’s 5% of world population consumes roughly a third of the world’s paper.

Industry researchers are singing the same tune with a report forecasting the U.S. demand for printed magazines and books to fall 47% and 52% respectively from 2010 to 2020. Together that would account for a decrease of 1.6 million tons of paper that is no longer demanded by the market place–trees that are never cut, hauled, milled, chipped, rolled, bleached, cut, packaged, shipping and sold. Yeah, that is a lot of energy. How much? Some estimates peg one sheet of paper requiring 17 watt hours to produce. That would put one ream at 8.5 kwh. With 400 reams per ton,1.6 million tons represents 5.44 billion kwh or enough to power over 450,000 American homes (all the solar power in the country can power about 600,000 as of Q1 2011).

So What’s the Catch?

There is one. The catch is that aside from glass, paper is the only component in our waste stream that has actually gone down. We are doing a better job managing the materials most easily recycled and least environmental destructive, but the more caustic resource streams like rubber, textiles, metal and especially plastics have all seen a net increase over the past decade (though they are down from a height in 2007). Without a doubt, we have a lot more ground to claim where paper is concerned, but as a country we are becoming proficient. It may be time to turn our focus to new challenges.

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