The response to "I'm an environmental idiot!" in comments on this site, emails to me, and LinkedIn discussions, has been largely favorable. It turns out there are other idiots, some of them major companies, and I'm compiling a list of their statements regarding recycled-content paper for a future post.
But in the interest of more than a one-sided discussion, I'll also point out some interesting criticisms. The harshest is in a post today at paperthought, which says that "the down-cycle whine is getting pretty old" and that all paper sectors must do their part to suck up recovered fiber.
Someone sent an off-line email questioning whether down-cycling wastes 20% of recycled fiber. The book-industry report I quoted on that apparently got the information from a paper company, so perhaps there is some "spin" in that statistic.
An anonymous comment on this site pointed out that the economic recession has drastically reduced China's demand for the U.S.'s waste paper. "Up-cycling may not make sense when you could use it in other down-cycle applications, but if there is [no] market for the down-cycle product, up-cycle is better than landfill," Anonymous points out.
It's true that my timing was lousy: The last couple of weeks have seen a horrendous drop in demand, and prices, for recovered fiber. Recycled paper destined for China is backing up in North American ports because of falling demand and credit problems, and there is even talk of landfilling recycled fiber now being more profitable than selling it. Assuming we won't magically see a reopening of newsprint and other low-grade mills that relied solely or mostly recycled fiber, what's the best way for buyers to influence the market so that the recovered fiber is used appropriately?
More questions: Isn't the growth of single-stream curbside recycling (where glass, cans, and paper are put into the same bins) a major factor in making much of North America's recycled fiber difficult to use in North America? If so, why aren't all of us (paper buyers, paper mills, environmentalists), battling the spread of single-stream recycling?