Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Recycled paper piling up

The New York Times has discovered the recycling crisis – nearly a month after Dead Tree Edition's "Awash in Paper" reported on it. Yesterday’s article in the Times even uses one of the same examples, the Charleston, WV area.

The article reports various instances of communities suspending or restricting their recycling programs and of recyclers storing materials rather than selling them for next to nothing. All kinds of scrap, not just paper, are affected.

The second sentence actually understates the problem, saying that the economic downturn has “decimated” the market for recyclables. Once upon a time, the Times had copy editors who knew that “decimate” means to destroy only 10% of something and who would have realized that “devastated” was more appropriate in this case.

One irony of the article is that it came out just after a minor recovery in the market for recycled paper as Chinese buyers tentatively returned to the market. For example, Pulp & Paper Week reports that the December price for mixed paper for export from New York to Asia was a whopping $0 to $5 per ton, up from -$10 to -$15 (yes, prices were negative) in November.

Speaking of ironies, here’s another from the same issue of Pulp & Paper Week: Material recovery facilities (MRFs) in Quebec are struggling and looking for relief from city-government contracts because of the crash in export prices to China. Hmm, Quebec, aren’t there a lot of paper mills there? Yes, but the newsletter reports that the MRFs take in material from single-stream recycling operations that “isn’t good enough quality for domestic paper mills.”

I don’t understand why the environmental movement has been largely asleep on single-stream recycling. Some organizations pressure major organizations to buy paper with recycled content but ignore the fact that, increasingly in North America, we are moving to single-stream recycling (glass, cans, paper, etc. in the same containers) that makes the recovered fiber virtually unuseable for high-quality paper. We have relied on shipping it to China, where labor is cheap enough to justify separating the recycled materials by hand.

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