Anne Johnson, Director

January 30, 2014

3 Min Read
Why the recovery and recycling of paper is complicated

For more than four years, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition has been working to understand the dynamics of the paper and packaging industry. We want to better understand why recycling paper and packaging is such a thorny issue, often with apparently conflicting positions from one part of the industry to the other regarding the need for recovered fiber.

When industry experts are asked to explain the challenges related to closing the loop on materials through the use of recycled content, the response is predictable: "It's complicated."

To start off, it is a gross simplification to think of the manufacture of fiber-based paper products as a single industry. The wood fiber, the pulping processes and the technologies used to produce fiber products are very different for a product like newspaper than cartons. As a consequence, it becomes difficult to make general statements about the use of recycled content because there is always an exception to the rule.

If fiber recovery and recycling do not make economic sense, it isn't going to happen no matter how much we emphasize the environmental benefits. One of the fundamental problems is that we cannot move pulp and paper mills. Mills represent significant capital investment and, in the past, were located due to their proximity to trees and water, not recovered fiber. As a consequence, they may not be near economic sources of recovered fiber. The geographical location of a mill to sources of recovered fiber is important, and it can drive much of the economics of a recycled product.

Whether mills are largely virgin or recycled, their technologies are optimized to produce specific board products and at significant scale. Because of the scale of paper production from an economic and environmental perspective, it often makes more sense for a mill to produce all products with the same level of recycled content rather than varying amounts. As frustrating as this may be to me as an environmentalist, the engineer in me realizes that if we are going to drive significant use of recycled material in fiber products then we need to work with the scale of production systems that exist and strive for new systems that are better.

One of the technical issues that can destroy the economics of producing recycled products is the quality of the recovered fiber inputs. Like cooking, the only way we can predict the quality of paper products is if we have a handle on the quality of the ingredients put into the pulper. While single-stream collection of paper and packaging may make a lot of economic sense to local authorities, it is a threat to the existence of existing recycle mills that don't have the technologies to deal with the higher level of contaminants that single stream brings. It also results in lower quality recycled products that will have more limited application in the market. The recent withdrawal of some brands from the use of recycled cartons in Europe due to contamination from mineral oils is a great example.

If we are going to support the use of recycled content, then we need to really understand the economic and technical issues and work to optimize the system, not a niche. Protecting the quality of inputs through smart collection practice is critical, but at the end of the day we need to be smart about the products that we specify and to understand where it makes sense to drive the use of recycled content. This is true for both business and policy makers.

Anne Johnson is the director for the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of GreenBlue

( For additional information, email [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Anne Johnson

Director, Sustainable Packaging Coalition

Anne Johnson is the director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of GreenBlue ( For additional information, email [email protected].

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