Fri, Oct 18, 2019 - Page 9 News List

US consumers might save paper recycling

China almost killed the market when it stopped buying, but environmentally aware shoppers are coming to the rescue

By Emily Chasan  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Mountain People

The epiphany came when a certain coffee chain started replacing plastic straws with paper ones. Despite increasingly dire warnings about Texas-size islands of plastic in the world’s oceans, the sudden public debate over straws was arguably a turning point in how US consumers think about sustainability.

On one hand, the rise of paper straws is a brazen case of greenwashing, since straws make up only a tiny share of waste. On the other, the proliferation of paper and bamboo straws marked the beginning of a larger commercial pivot away from plastic.

Companies are beginning to realize there is more to lose from offending consumers who are aware of how cheap plastic products feed global warming, choke oceans, kill wildlife and — more slowly — threaten us. This is especially the case when it comes to packaging.

Containers, cartons, wrapping and everything else discarded after a product is used make up about 30 percent of all US trash, or more than 68.94 million tonnes annually. Now the biggest retailers and consumer goods giants are racing to replace everything from plastic envelopes to plastic foam meat trays with fiber-based iterations.

The US paper recycling industry, it turns out, has suddenly found itself in demand.

Until last year, recycling in the US — from plastics to paper to assorted waste — was propped up by China’s willingness to purchase much of it. When Beijing decided it did not want the world’s garbage anymore, the value of US recyclables plummeted.

With an excess supply and no one to sell it to, prices for recycled residential paper even touched negative territory. That means cities have to pay someone to take away the material they collect.

For US towns and cities, what was at best a breakeven proposition suddenly became very expensive. Unable to sell recycling at a high enough price, they either had to raise taxes to pay for collection, dump it all into landfills or burn it. Many chose the latter options.

This has been “a challenging year” for municipalities that collect paper, said Renee Yardley, a senior vice president at recycling company Sustana Group.

Consumer goods companies might be starting to turn that around.

Trying to get ahead of regulations in countries that ban or tax plastic packaging, some product manufacturers are turning to recycled paper for the first time. With restrictions on single-use plastics in place across 60 nations and 350 US municipalities, analysts on global index provider MSCI’s environmental, social and governance research team said plastics “could lose market share to alternatives.”

More than 200 businesses, representing about 20 percent of all packaging used globally, have made commitments to reduce plastic waste, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Coca-Cola European Partners became the latest to do so, saying it would replace plastic shrink wrap with cardboard for its can multipacks across Western Europe, removing more than 3,600 tonnes of plastic annually.

It is expensive to recycle paper: The process begins with fleets of trucks to pick it up and facilities to clean it, pulp it and eventually turn it into rolls of recycled paper. Then it is sold to manufacturers for use in their products or packaging.

As demand for paper packaging rises, the US recycling sector faces another challenge: a critical need for expanded infrastructure.

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