Sappi eQ Journal 005: Rethinking Recycling - Four Questions
- Why is it important to recycle paper?
Waste reduction is a fundamental tenet of sustainability and recycling is an integral element of any solid waste management plan. It’s one of the three Rs we’re all familiar with: reduce — reuse — recycle, practiced in that order. The environmental benefits of recycling vary greatly between programs. For materials like e-waste, it is critical to minimize exposure to hazardous materials. For household products like aluminum or glass beverage containers, there are enormous energy savings for using recycled materials over processing raw materials. The number one reason to recycle paper is to avoid the generation of greenhouse gases in landfills. Organic materials — including food waste, grass clippings and leaves — decompose much faster than other materials in landfills. In the absence of oxygen, one of the by-products of biodegradation is methane. Methane — also known as natural gas — has a global warming potential that is 25 times higher than carbon dioxide. This is why many municipalities require that grass clippings and leaves be separated from other waste streams. By managing these streams separately they can develop composting systems — which break down materials in the presence of air — to avoid methane generation. The same is true for the fiber in paper products. By keeping these materials out of landfills, the fiber can be put to use and avoid methane formation.
- Can our society reach 100% recycling of paper products?
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 or in school, we may experience different programs at work and in public venues. Or worse yet, we may not have access to recycling at all. For paper products, recovery rates in the US are at an all-time high. In fact, paper recovery increased by 1.2 million tons in 2011, lifting the recovery rate to a record-high 66.8%. That’s up from 63.5% in 2010 and 33.5% in 1990. Digging deeper into the data reveals that the recovery of printing and writing grades lags behind that of other products, like corrugated containers. As an industry segment, we have to do better. While some paper products can never be recycled (e.g., personal hygiene products like bathroom tissue and towel), all of Sappi’s coated fine papers can and should be recycled. If 87% of Americans have access to curbside or drop-off paper recycling programs, we can infer that recycling magazines and catalogs is not limited by access, but perhaps simply by awareness. For this reason, we are strong supporters of recycling education and outreach, and we encourage corporate marketers and graphic designers to use “please recycle” statements or 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.
- What is single stream recycling?
The term “single stream” recycling is used to refer to collection processes where recyclable materials are comingled, or all placed in a single bin. By contrast, some recycling programs are designed to separate various materials, collecting glass, metals and plastics separately from paper. While single stream systems typically result in lower collection costs and higher overall recycling rates, unfortunately they also lead to increased levels of cross-contamination. For example, paper collected through single stream systems will contain more glass, plastic and organic matter, ultimately leading to higher costs and lower quality for paper recycling facilities. Several studies have shown that the downstream costs associated with additional sorting and lower quality due to contamination are greater than the savings achieved through single stream collection methods. However, because the cost burden of collection (borne primarily by municipalities and ultimately residents) is typically separated from the rest of the value stream (the scrap materials markets), it is unlikely that the momentum toward single stream recovery will be reversed. In addition to municipal programs, many office buildings are also turning to single stream collections. Unfortunately, this means high-value office paper is often comingled with other products and ends up in a mixed paper stream instead of staying separated. If given a choice, think about downstream processing and separate recyclables when you can.
- Why doesn’t Sappi make coated papers with 100% recycled content?
In manufacturing, selection of materials must balance economic and environmental considerations alongside performance attributes. At Sappi, we offer products with up to 30% recycled fiber derived from post-consumer waste. Unfortunately, it is an oversimplified notion to universally promote maximizing recycled fiber in all paper products. Paper is not monolithic; certain paper grades and even certain mills are better suited for using recycled fiber than others. There are vast differences between processing recycled fiber for packaging applications versus doing so for premium papers. Some mills are integrated with pulping systems, while others rely on purchased fiber. Pulping can be done mechanically (e.g., groundwood) or chemically (i.e., kraft pulping). Depending on the grade and the application, there may or may not be bleaching involved. And so on. Ultimately, recycled fiber should be used in products where it does not create a higher net environmental impact. Many people are surprised to learn that recycled fiber–processed to meet our quality standards for brightness and cleanliness–is actually more expensive than manufacturing pulp on-site from wood. Recycled fibers are lower in strength than virgin fiber and as a result there are physical limitations to how much recycled fiber can be utilized without compromising the strength properties of the paper. Because most of the energy used to process recycled fiber is purchased from the power grid, many deinking mills have higher carbon emissions than Sappi’s integrated pulp mills that use more renewable energy sources. In fact, our analysis shows that adding 10% recycled fiber to products made at our Somerset mill actually raises the carbon footprint of those products by 16%.