Why recycle and what are the benefits? Most paper products can be recycled up to five times – perhaps that’s why the Pulp and Paper industry is so committed to such programmes

In the strictest sense, recycling implies that used materials are collected and processed into a fresh supply of material suitable for identical use as the original.

In practice this is seldom achieved, because of the unfavourable economics of sorting, cleaning and re-processing a relatively small volume of material.

The economies of scale, established markets and distribution systems enjoyed by producers of virgin materials, often outweigh the benefits available to recyclers from reduced energy consumption and other factors – making recycled material more expensive.

Instead most recycling activities could be named more accurately as reuse, because the recovered materials are often used to produce a lower grade of product. Recovered paper may be reused in the production of cardboard or egg cartons for example.

Why recycle?
In terms of cost to the producer, certain products offer a massive reduction in required energy to recycle when compared to virgin material – scrap aluminium tops the list with a 95% saving.

It goes without saying that the economic viability of recycling aluminium drives this activity very effectively, without the need for other incentives.

The energy saving quoted for cardboard is 24% and for paper 40%, considerably lower than for aluminium, yet the growth in paper and board recycling activity during the past 30 years has been impressive.

Given that 70% of the world’s virgin papermaking fibre is made by the kraft process, with a typical yield of only 45% of the mass of wood processed, it is not surprising that significant opportunities exist in the recycling of paper and board products.

Multiple benefits are quoted by the proponents of recycling, including reduced energy consumption with associated lower emissions of carbon and other air pollutants, reduced landfill capacity and therefore less soil and water pollution.

Many of these factors are defined by economists as externalities, because they are costs or benefits that are not priced in the economic system, even though they affect society as a whole.

For example, cleaner air is more pleasant and healthier to breathe than polluted air, but consumers do not pay directly for the air they breathe, regardless of its quality.

The logistics of supply and demand can also distort the relative costs of recycled materials unfairly.

For example, the specific power required to produce a ton of paper using recycled pulp, is quoted by the Energy Information Administration section of the US Department of Energy to be 40% lower than for virgin pulp.

Many paper recycling plants, however, are situated close to the sources of scrap paper and therefore depend on grid power produced by a utility that is fuelled by expensive fossil fuel, with high carbon emissions.

Conversely, pulp mills producing virgin pulp are usually sited close to the forests that provide their source of wood, generate their own energy from the combustion of organic by-products supplemented by hydro-electric power, and therefore claim to be carbon neutral.

Requirements for effective recycling
It is critically important to recognise that recycling operations can be effective and sustainable, only if standard business principles are satisfied.

Fundamental to this is the need for adequate sources of supply, effective management to ensure capital and labour productivity, and accessible potential markets for recycled materials.

Artificial stimulation of both supply and demand has been found necessary in most situations, to enable recycling industries to become established in competition with the industries producing virgin materials.

During the 1970s the impact of rising energy costs on the provision of public services, such as waste management motivated, many cities to invest in recycling systems focused on the collection of recyclates through drop-off centres, buy-back centres or curbside collection.

Public education was seen as crucial to the success of these early programmes, which aimed at separation of the most easily recycled materials like glass, paper, plastic and metal by households - prior to the disposal of domestic waste.

Paper recycling
Recycling paper can reduce the both the upstream impacts of raw material consumption and downstream impacts in terms of waste disposal.

Paper production consumes 35% of the trees felled annually and paper products are the largest component of solid municipal waste in the US, taking up over 40% of the landfill capacity.

Three categories of paper form acceptable feedstock for making recycled paper:

1. Mill broke is the terms used for trimmings and other scrap that is recycled internally at the paper mill

2. Pre-consumer waste consists of paper products that were discarded before distribution for use by consumers, like unsold publications or paper spoiled during printing

3. Post-consumer scrap paper includes old newspapers, magazines, phone directories and mixed household paper waste

The European Union leads the world, with an average recycling rate of 59.9% reported in 2004 and a voluntary target of 66% for 2010. Europe also recycles almost 90% of the paper collected there.

In the same year, seven European countries exceeded a 70% collection rate including: Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Japan ranks next with 66.4% recycle rate in 2004.

Asia and especially China are the major importers of European recovered paper. In
2006 the US collected 53.4% of the paper used for recycling and the industry goal is to achieve 55% recovery by 2012.

Ongoing controversy
The net economic and environmental benefits of recycling are difficult to measure and critics challenge its viability.

One of the most contentious issues is the drive by large municipalities in the US to minimise landfill costs, when smaller towns and cities seem happy to import waste because it provides employment and tax revenue.

Calculations project that even if the current rate of waste disposal is maintained in the long term, the total space absorbed by landfills would be insignificant to a continent the size of North America.

Another argument is that government mandated recycling produces materials of lower quality than virgin material at higher cost, while consuming more energy than incineration of post-consumer waste products could generate.

Definitive answers to these issues are elusive, but the Pulp and Paper industry remains committed to the expansion of recycling programmes in most countries around the world.