The Great American Paper Chase

The Great American Paper Chase

By Rob Arner

Each day in the United States, we recover enough paper to fill a train of boxcars 15 miles long. Over one third of all the paper and paperboard recycled in the world is recovered in the United States. Paper accounts for the largest fraction of the waste stream making paper recycling one of the most important recycling programs—more paper is recovered in the USA than all other materials combined except for asphalt and steel. Last year, the paper industry recovered more than 45 million tons of paper for recycling. This represents 45% of all the paper Americans used that year and substantially reduces the amount of material sent to landfills.

The United States is not only the largest consumer of recycled paper, but also its largest exporter. Recovered paper in the United States provides a valuable raw material fiber resource for both the domestic industry and the international market. More than one third of the raw material fiber used by U.S. papermakers comes from recycled paper.

The success of paper recycling has been due to the strength of these domestic and international markets. Paper recycling has been strongly recommended and supported by environmental groups because the acquisition of raw materials for paper production raises serious environmental concerns. Forests are important ecosystems and provide watershed protection, animal habitat, and clean air. Forests often include a variety of tree species that provide homes for many animal species. Thus, not only does deforestation endanger many species of animal life, but it also results in increased carbon dioxide levels, as there are fewer trees to remove carbon dioxide from the environment.

The various kinds of paper grades can be divided into four basic categories, based on their different applications and characteristics. The first category—corrugated cardboard boxes, grocery bags, and shipping sacks—accounts for roughly half of all recovered paper, and its recycling has had great success. Through retail stores, groceries, small businesses, and households, 75% of this paper type is recovered. About two thirds of all corrugated cardboard recovered is used to make new recycled containerboard and the rest is made into recycled paperboard.

One third of our nation's newspapers—the second type of paper recycled—is collected from residences, offices, and other sources. Sixty percent of it is then made into newsprint or recycled paperboard. Recycled newspaper is also made into insulation, hydroseed material for erosion control, and other alternative products.

The third type of paper, high-grade paper, is collected mainly from office paper programs and printing plants, and is recycled into a variety of new paper products from copier papers to tissues. Mixed papers, the last type, are commingled at offices and homes and then made into a variety of products.

The American Forest and Paper Association has a 50% U.S. recycling goal. They have developed an Agenda 2020, which aims to reduce energy use, improve fiber yield, and eliminate contamination.

A publication released in 1998 by the White House Task Force on Greening the Government through Waste Prevention and Recycling indicates that the purchasing of recycled paper products has led to environmental gains. Executive Order 13101, signed on Sept. 14, 1998 requires the purchase of 30% recycled content paper. If successfully implemented, it is expected to result in:

  • 450,000 to 500,000 fewer trees cut down annually
  • 16,000 tons of carbon absorbed annually by the remaining trees
  • 12% reduction in energy used in producing copier paper
  • 14% average reduction in air emissions and greenhouse gases
  • 13% reduction in the amount of solid waste requiring disposal, and
  • 13% reduction in water pollution.

However, there is still room for tremendous growth in the paper recycling industry. Research by the Environmental Defense Fund indicates that many recyclable paper products are still thrown away. Accordingly, in the United States, 6 million tons of newsprint, 1.5 million tons of magazines, 3.9 tons of office paper, and 12.7 tons of corrugated boxes are thrown away annually. In view of this, new and innovative ways to increase recycling need to be explored. More grades of paper, such as catalogs, magazines, and advertising mail could be collected from homes. Recycling collection systems could be developed for small offices, retail stores, malls, and other small businesses not targeted by commercial recycling programs.

Global paper use has grown six-fold since 1950. It takes 2 to 3.5 tons of trees to make one ton of paper. Worldwatch Institute has recently documented that the global consumption of wood fiber for papermaking could be cut by 50% by trimming consumption, improving mill efficiency, and expanding the use of recycled and non-wood materials. This study addresses improvements in papermaking that can not only save trees, but would save energy and money as well. Paper and pulp industries are the fifth largest consumer of energy and use more water per ton than any other product in the world.

Worldwatch cites in "Paper Cuts: Recovering the Paper Landscape,"

    "Expanding the recycling of used paper has enormous environmental and economic benefits. Despite a tripling in the volume of paper recycled since 1975, some 57% of used paper is not recycled. Because of soaring consumption, increases in overall volume of paper waste have outpaced the growth of recycling. Each year the United States sends more paper to the landfill than is consumed by all of China (the world's second largest paper consumer). Beyond saving trees, making new paper from old takes a fraction of the energy and chemicals used in virgin paper production."

There are many success stories about paper use reduction, paper recycling, and the purchase of recycled paper (by such companies as Proctor & Gamble, Bank of America, UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service). The United States, which has less than 5% of the world's population, consumes over 32% of the world's paper. It would behoove our country to take a global leadership role to foster better housekeeping and leaner consumption of paper. In so doing, we would demonstrate to the rest of the world that we are taking responsibility for our share of the environmental burden.

Rob Arner has worked in the field of solid waste and environmental issues both inside and outside of Washington, D.C. for the past 20 years.