talking trash

Marketing used paper
Before we decide whether recycled paper is a waste of money that helps the environment, or an economical move that helps the environment, we must examine one more factor: the paper market.

Recycled paper pulp is made by mixing used paper with water. Photos courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Products Laboratory.

Why does recycled paper sometimes cost more?

  pulpThis market is a curious beast, says John Klungness of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory. Like all markets, it's a cyclical creature that responds to supply and demand. But it also responds to taxes, he says. "When times are good, a paper company can either take its profits and pay taxes, or it can invest in additional capacity."

Given that choice, he adds, the companies logically invest in more plants when prices are high. But when the new capacity floods the market with paper, prices fall and no more capacity gets built. Eventually demand catches up with supply, and the price of pulp and paper rises.

All this has implications for recycling, Klungness says: When virgin pulp is expensive, "recycled fibers are wonderful. But when it's low, virgin pulp can beat it out on printing and writing grades." That explains why you hear so much pain from paper recyclers during times like today, when the low price of pulp has idled at least a dozen plants that remove ink from old paper.

Not just mandates at work
And despite the surcharge on some recycled paper, Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council says there's no inherent reason why recycled should be more expensive than virgin. "In terms of actual production price, it need not cost more. There's less chemical waste, less water waste, and equal or less energy needed." Virgin paper still benefits from government subsidies, he charges, including roads and other services provided at a loss by the U.S. Forest Service.

goverment subsidies for virgin paperDespite the continuing argument over whether the federal government is obeying its own paper recycling mandate, Hershkowitz says "recycling is overwhelmingly a matter of money and the market," not mandates or the public enthusiasm for recycling. And that means the ever-shifting market will determine whether it's cheaper to use recycled or virgin paper on any particular day of the week.

Yet public enthusiasm has helped both recycling mandates and research. Mandates have helped stimulate the market, thus drawing in capital expenditures. And research has eased the recycling process, Klungness says, by finding ways to deal with laser-printer toner and the sticky remnants of labels.

And while few people like paying more than necessary for paper, the public is committed to recycling, he argues. "Aldo Leopold worked here [at the Forest Products Laboratory] as assistant director ... He wrote one book -- A Sand County Almanac. Why is that book still in print? Because he was touching something everybody really loves -- the forest. Why is everybody so in favor of recycling? Because it's seen as putting less pressure on the forest."

Here's a great way to recycle sludge from paper mills -- use it as fertilizer. On second thought, is this safe?


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