Co-mingling or single stream recycling is taking the nation by storm as more and more municipalities establish a streamlined system in which all recyclables, including plastic, paper, cardboard, aluminum and newspaper are put into a single cart for recycling.  The local materials recovery facility is then responsible for sorting the recyclables to be sold, processed and reused. While co-mingling has proven to be an efficient system for the consumer and municipalities, the long term effect single stream recycling has on paper recycling is proving to be more problematic.

According to Bernard Newman, president and chief executive officer of Newman & Company, a 100 year old, family owned and operated paper recycler in Philadelphia, unsophisticated co-mingling impacts negatively on the processing of paper grades and separation of variable fibers that are used as recipes to make different grades of paper.  “It is a challenge for paper mills when it’s not sorted properly,” Newman said. “There is a need to educate collectors and accumulators of paper stock – primarily municipalities and government entities – on how to properly separate and prepare so it can be utilized effectively without tremendous additional cost.”

That said, Newman is seeing a significantly large paper recycling business growing in the Philadelphia area and in almost all major U.S. metropolitan cities.  “Recycling is quite mature and has become very sophisticated and has worked its way into smaller towns and communities and places that, some years ago, didn’t have the inclination or the wherewithal to become involved,” Newman said. “The industry advances as more paper mills are using more grades of recoverable fiber and the export market is significant – especially the Far East where the demand is enormous and constantly growing.”

Newman Paper Board has been manufacturing 100 percent recycled paperboard for 98 years. United States Recycling, Inc. (USRI), which is the company’s recycling arm, continues to grow as USRI purchases and acquires many grades of recoverable fiber shipping throughout North America and exports it all over the world.

Long Range Impact

As more municipalities allow co-mingling of paper products for recycling, the recycling process is being impacted.  Waste Management views paper recycling in a few segments – cardboard, newspaper, mixed paper and high-grade papers. “With the increase in online shopping, we have seen increases in the mix of cardboard in our residential recycling programs, which has offset the decline of newspaper – replaced with electronic media,” said Waste Management vice president of recycling, Brent Bell. “So while the overall recycling percentage has remained relatively flat in recent years, the mix has changed.”

Waste Management is the largest recycler in North America with 14 to 15 million tons recycled annually. About 80 percent of the material the company collects curbside is paper and they feel that paper recycling has one of the largest greenhouse gas benefits from a sustainable materials management perspective.

“The conversion to single stream for many of our customers resulted in an increase in their recycling rate of nearly 40 percent, however the contamination rate also increased,” Bell said. Waste Management developed an educational campaign, called “Recycle Often. Recycle Right.” to help customers simplify what can be recycled in their curbside programs. When co-mingling results in contamination, the result is significantly higher costs by mills to process and prepare paper stock for manufacturing their products in accordance with minimum quality standards.

“When bottles, cans or containers are not rinsed out, or still have liquids in them they can saturate the paper,” Bell said. “Sometimes even food is left in recyclable containers or placed in the recycling bin, which can cause paper to absorb grease, oil and other food waste.”

Michael McManus, communications director at Asia Pulp & Paper, one of the world’s largest, fully integrated pulp and paper manufacturers, said recyclability of paper is being reimagined on the forefront, by the manufacturers and converters who have sustainability top of mind.

In addition to recovering and re-using everything from scraps to binding, Asia Pulp & Paper and its supplier network procure large amounts of recycled or recovered material for integration into their products. “To give you an example, at just one of our mills, we purchase about 1,500,000 MT of recycled brown paper material annually which is, in turn, integrated into our product manufacturing and production,” McManus said. “Depending on location, we would love to acquire and utilize additional recovered material, but shipping, cargo costs and carbon footprint come into play.”

Co-mingling can certainly provide more incentive to recycle, but with it comes higher labor costs for separation, contamination, tracking and monitoring. That said, with education and newer technologies involving sensors, optical detection and cameras, McManus hopes to see those costs stabilize or come down over time. Co-mingling or single stream recycling certainly offers benefits to recycling companies and consumers alike. The benefits include being able to make recycling easier for the customer and with that convenience, recycling rates should increase. “The collection companies, either municipal owned or WM, can utilize an efficient compaction truck compared to the older dual stream trucks that may have to divert off of a route when only half the truck was full, half of the truck was fibers and the other half was non-fibers,” Bell said.

For consumers, the benefit of co-mingling is that it’s become effortless and easy. It doesn’t take much time or thought, so more people are more likely to participate in recycling whether it be at home, at an airport, school, restaurant or shopping center. The advantage for companies like ours is that it increases the amount available, stabilizes the market, and lowers cost so we can more cost effectively integrate and create another lifecycle for this material. “One of the biggest challenges we see today in the U.S. is a lack of recycling infrastructure and inconstancy,” McManus said. “As an example, some states offer curbside pick-up, while others require consumers to take their own initiative and bring their own waste to the proper recycling stations.”

From the paper/production side, Asia Pulp & Paper still sees challenges with brands that want to offer their customers the most sustainable solution, which people tend to default to as recycling paper, but can’t due to product limitations. This is most evident in food packaging where certification may require virgin paper or for a hot beverage cup that requires an inner liner to retain heat. These challenges require product innovation. “The most important aspect of our industry is that the fiber based paper and packaging are some of the most widely recycled materials in the world,” McManus said. “We are a sector of growth, because as long as fiber can be grown in a sustainable and responsible way, we can re-grow the crop needed to produce the needs of consumers all over the world. We can then combine both virgin and recycled material to create products which consumers and businesses need and use every day.”

Looking Forward

Paper recycling and production experts agree about the certainty that paper recycling will grow and have far-reaching positive results. The whole triple bottom line of ‘people, planet, profit’ is at play within the paper recycling arm of the recycling industry, especially as paper recycling continues to increase.

As more developing and developed countries adopt programs through local municipalities and government, less trash means less landfills, increased sustainable and environmentally friendly communities, increased competition, more jobs, a drive to create better technologies to help sort, bundle and produce as well as increased opportunities for superior recycled products. “I see a few growing pains, but many more positives in the future of paper recycling, most important of which is a cleaner, healthier planet,” McManus said.

Bell believes that paper recycling will grow, however, like all recycling products, if there is not a demand for the material the program will not be sustainable. “We must ensure that manufacturers not only produce products and packaging that are easy to recycle, but the use of recycled content by manufacturers is critical to the materials moving and ensuring the supply/demand economics are in balance,” Bell said. While paper recycling is good for the environment, Newman said that there is less benefit for the recycling company and more for the municipality who collects it. “That is where single stream comes to play,” Newman said. “Co-mingling procedures may reduce the cost of collecting but can create many costly problems for everyone after that. I believe the paper recycling industry will continue to grow until the practical recycling collection rate is achieved maximally throughout the country. That time is approaching but hasn’t been reached yet.”

Published in the June 2017 Edition of American Recycler News

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