Minnesota spent $22,000 to prevent the clear-cutting of one acre of forest. It could have bought 50 acres for that price.
talking trash

Sensible recycling, or stupendous waste?
POSTED 7 MAY 1998 When writer Greg Breining looked at the balance sheet for Minnesota Volunteer, a state-sponsored magazine of which he's managing editor, he was not surprised to see that paper was the largest single expense. But he was surprised to learn that the magazine was paying an 11 percent surcharge for recycled paper.

forestThe purchase of paper with at least 10 percent post-consumer waste was required by a State of Minnesota "buy-recycled" mandate. Like its counterparts in other states and the federal government, the mandate is designed to stimulate markets for recycled paper, thus reducing pollution, the flow of paper to garbage dumps, and the cutting of more trees.

Still, Breining was curious how much environmental benefit the state was buying for the extra $22,000 his magazine spent on recycled paper. The benefits turned out to be small: sixteen cords of pulpwood -- about what you'd get by clear-cutting a single acre of northern Minnesota aspen woods.

    Breining grants that paper recycling has other benefits, such as reducing the need for landfills and the pollution caused by paper-making. Still, he had to question whether spending $22,000 to prevent the clear-cutting of one acre that cost $400 on the open market was a smart use of taxpayer's and subscribers' money.

200 million Americans have paper recycling programs
Indeed, he notes that the annual recycled-paper surcharge for Minnesota Volunteer could buy more than 50 acres of softwood timber -- and the land on which it grew.

It's hard to find anyone who thinks one acre of this woodland is worth $22,000 (unless it houses flying saucer remains, that is). Yet if true, Breining's analysis could drive a stake into the heart of paper recycling.

Is recycling paper an absurdly expensive waste of time and resources? Is it driven solely by government mandates? These questions are important because paper recycling is an enormous undertaking. In 1996, 44.7 percent of discarded paper in America was recovered for recycling, according to the American Forest and Paper Association. That percentage will probably continue rising since recycling programs now serve almost 200 million Americans.

Converting old paper into new paper pulp or other products entails lots of work and a huge industrial plant. But most of the 34.6 million tons of recycled paper used by paper mills in 1996 (another 7.2 million tons were exported in 1996) is not subject to the mandates that concern Breining.

Gluttons for punishment
This glut of recovered paper is made into everything from paper to boxes to animal bedding. And while the relatively small amount of recycled papers used for writing and printing are struggling with high prices and sluggish demand, the dominant sectors of the market are doing much better.

recycle meThe real action in recycled paper is in newspaper and fiberboard, the raw material for corrugated containers. About 20.5 million tons of corrugated material -- 56 percent of the wastepaper used in U.S. mills -- is recycled into the squiggly corrugations and the outside liners. This recycling is so profitable that 73 percent of discarded corrugated material is recycled, and the quantity reused has almost doubled since 1990.

Another strong area is newsprint. About 5.4 million tons of this material, used for newspapers, is recovered each year, generally to make more newsprint. The market is so promising that the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group in New York, is coordinating the development of a large recycling plant in the South Bronx. When operational in two or three years, the plant will sell 220,000 metric tons of newsprint to the city's newspapers. Groundbreaking for the facility, which will be owned and operated by a private papermaker, is expected this fall, says Allen Hershkowitz, the garbage and recycling czar at NRDC.

Tissue paper -- for toilet paper, paper towels and the like -- is ideally suited to be made with recycled fibers. "A huge amount of recovered paper is recycled into tissue production," says John Klungness, a chemical engineer at the U.S. Forest Product Laboratory's pulp and paper division. "You want bulky, absorbent sheets, with lots of capillary action -- that's exactly what you have with recycled fibers."

In these categories, mandates are not a factor, and unlike writing and printing papers, quality is not as much of a problem either. Thus the paper that's toughest to make is not a good gauge of the entire market.

I hear a big voice. Isn't the paper market a big player in determining the fate of paper recycling?

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