Solid Waste & Recycling

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Paper Tiger

One evening in March I was having a pint in my neighborhood pub beside two attractive ladies, one of whom turned to me and said, looking at my open iPad, “That’s an odd thing to bring into a bar!” to which I replied...


One evening in March I was having a pint in my neighborhood pub beside two attractive ladies, one of whom turned to me and said, looking at my open iPad, “That’s an odd thing to bring into a bar!” to which I replied nonchalantly, “It’s no different really than a newspaper” — to which she readily agreed.

At the time I happened to be browsing the excellent news website thedailybeast.com that, appropriately for my comment, is what the old Newsweek magazine used to be. More precisely, The Daily Beast website purchased Newsweek, which had been struggling in the Internet age.  Newsweek announced in 2012 that it would cease publication.

That little bar exchange illustrated a major trend that’s impacting curbside recycling programs across North America: the decline of newsprint and magazine fibre available for recycling.

In the United States, tablet ownership grew from 17 to 70 million in the past two years. Apple is slated to sell over 100 million iPads this year and around 200 million iPhones. Other brands are doing well, with Google Android becoming the dominant system, set to expand greatly. Book readers like Amazon Kindle will also carry news and magazine content. The price of these devices will plummet over time and become so cheap that everyone will have one; homes will be littered with different models and sizes for adults, kids and teens.

Physical print consumption is arguably a generational thing; young people aren’t forming the newspaper buying habit, and have never known a time when everything isn’t available online. This will accelerate the paperless trend.

In light of this an online article by David Refkin at recycling-reinvented.org warrants consideration. Refkin, who is Presi-dent of GreenPath Sustainability Consultants in New York, addresses the problem that steep declines in newspaper consumption poses for curbside recycling programs.

Newsprint consumption, Refkin points out (in the American context), fell 50.6 per cent between 2000 and 2011.

“Despite a small uptick in the recovery rate of newspapers, the amount of newspaper tonnage that is being recovered is down 37.9 per cent or 4.2 million tons since 2006,” he writes. “When the 2012 numbers are calculated, it is certain that the declines will be quite a bit steeper.”

Magazine (coated) paper use has also suffered and will decline further.

This is causing a well-known paradigm shift in the publishing world, where everyone is scrambling to move content online and figure out how to charge for it. Less well known is the impact on the long-term financial viability of curbside recycling programs for which newsprint has been a significant financial component.

Refkin looks at data from the City of San Antonio, Texas, where, in 2009 newspapers constituted 51 per cent of the tonnage collected at the curbside.

“Glass was a distant second at less than 18 per cent,” Refkin states. “When the net revenue from curbside recycling (gross revenue less processing costs) is calculated, newspapers represented 50 per cent of the total (based on $91 per ton for recovered newsprint).

“Cardboard/Corrugated is the second largest revenue source at 30 per cent, with plastics at 25 per cent. The percentage of net revenue related to newspapers has been declining significantly over the last few years from roughly 50 per cent to now 33 per cent, or even less.”

Refkin reports on Frederick County, Maryland, northwest of Washington, DC, whose recycling program costs $6.3 million annually, but only takes in $2.9 million in revenue. How long, he asks, will cash-strapped municipalities support curbside recycling programs when their newsprint income evaporates?

One solution Refkin points to is extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation, which could increase the supply of recoverable materials. In this he echoes Canada’s Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) and its call for a landfill ban on old corrugated cardboard (OCC). As producers consider more sustainable packaging, renewable options from Canada’s certified forests could become more attractive; capturing and recycling more OCC could offset some of the declines in printed paper.

In conclusion, operators of municipal curbside recycling programs need to prepare for these changes now, not when their paper revenue disappears for good.

Guy Crittenden is Editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at gcrittenden@solidwastemag.com


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