Pulp Magic

DECEMBER 1, 2018

The “Recycling Crisis” That Wasn’t

Last week, timed for black Friday and cyber Monday, USA Today published a story (“Will those holiday gift boxes actually get recycled? Um, maybe”, by Chris Woodyard) that could leave consumers with the impression that paper/box recycling as you know it is in “crisis.”

Happily, I can report that this is not the case. In fact, the piece focuses on normal, near-term and market-based challenges facing the recycling industry. And like any industry facing shifting market conditions, all of us in the recycling value chain are adapting and changing.

As the piece notes, with the market in China tightening, recyclers are sending materials to new markets around the world. Processing facilities, including paper mills, are being built here to grow the domestic market for recycled materials. And local waste collection programs across the country are taking a fresh look at how to improve the quality and purity of recycled materials in a way that will add to their economic viability.

Indeed, paper and packaging is faring even better than other recyclable materials. Over a month ago, China approved a new round of permits that allowed for the import of over 2 million metric tons of recovered fiber, a considerable increase compared to prior months. That means that, when it comes to wood fiber at least, the very conditions the USA Today piece claims created the “great recycling crisis” are no longer operative.

That’s the real story here.

The danger of the flawed “recycling crisis” narrative is that it can lead people to think that their everyday efforts at recycling are for naught. Speculating that much of holiday recyclables will end up in landfills, as the piece does without empirical evidence, is especially misplaced, and fails to give consumers the credit they deserve. Americans demonstrate their strong commitment to recycling year after year, resulting in astonishing rates of recovery and recycling of corrugated cardboard – 89 percent in 2017 – and all paper products – over two thirds recovered in 2017.

The fact is that some 96 percent of Americans have access to recycling programs in their neighborhoods and hometowns, and thankfully, they use them. As the holidays approach, we should be encouraging this good stewardship, not lamenting a “crisis” that in reality, doesn’t exist.