Rumors of the Death of Recycling Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
“The U.S. paper recycling industry, it turns out, has suddenly found itself in demand—and maybe just in the nick of time.”
That’s the key takeaway in a very interesting recent article from Bloomberg News.
If you’re a regular reader of Pulp Magic, you know it’s our view that the media coverage around the challenges facing U.S. recycling and waste infrastructure tends to underestimate the ways the paper and packaging industry is nimbly innovating solutions, and indeed leading the way in creating a new paradigm.
Happily, this Bloomberg piece bucks that trend, as it catalogs how “the biggest retailers and consumer goods giants are racing to replace everything from plastic envelopes to styrofoam meat trays with fiber-based iterations.”
Specifically, the article puts hard numbers to two accelerating trends that many, if not most of us, have already been noticing anecdotally in our communities. First, that many municipalities are moving toward single-use plastics bans, with over 350 U.S. municipalities in the United States already having some version in place. Second, that brands are being spurred by consumers to follow suit; over 200 businesses, who combined account for 20 percent of all packaging globally, have committed to reducing plastic waste already.
Combine these trends with the fact that consumers are already about twice as likely to recycle paper-based packaging as plastics-based alternatives, and conditions are ripe for a paper and packaging renaissance.
It’s not going to happen overnight, of course. And the article rightly points out that one of the biggest remaining hurdles is expanding paper recycling infrastructure inside the United States. That means both improving local collection and expanding mill capacity to turn that pulp into recycled paper and packaging. But we are hardly starting from scratch. Over 90 percent of Americans already have access to curbside or community-drop-off paper recycling, and as the article notes, companies have ramped up investment in facilities that can collect, process, and manufacture recycled content.
New technologies and enterprising start-ups are driving progress as well, making products like paper-based bottle alternatives to plastic more cost competitive, and rolling out new coatings to improve the recyclability of paper-based food packaging.
But most importantly, it’s consumers who are creating the change, as ever, with their wallets and their pocketbooks. And we know from our own experience that American consumers are both practical and aspirational. They understand the reality that we need some amount of single-use packaging in our lives, to keep the things we buy safe, secure, and fresh from farm and factory to shelf and table. But they also believe in making better and more responsible choices, and they understand that natural, renewable, recyclable paper is one big way they can do that.