Paper Thin

What's happening to the king of the waste stream?

Paper, in all Its Types and Uses, Including writing paper, corrugated boxes, tissue and toilet paper, newspaper and packaging, is the largest part of the waste stream. According to EPA, paper makes up slightly more than a third of our trash. That's more than 86 million tons. No wonder this country is often called the Saudi Arabia of paper.

Not only do we use a lot of paper, we throw more of it away (41 million tons) and recycle it at a higher rate (52 percent) than any other material. As a result, paper is easily the most important material for a recycling program. Ask any recycling manager what is at the top of their wish list and the answer is likely to be continued strong paper recycling markets. They know their program lives and dies on the strength of those markets. While paper isn't quite as important in terms of disposal, it provides an invaluable fuel for incinerators and is a significant component of landfills.

Yet we are told the paperless office is the wave of the future. Plastic bags have pretty much replaced paper bags. Newspapers are available on-line. More milk is sold in plastic jugs than in paper containers. Only toilet paper seems to be safe. Should recyclers and solid waste managers be worried about the impact of these changes?

Probably not. EPA's numbers say the amount of paper we generate crested in 2000 and has gone down slightly since then. Paper industry data, which covers all paper consumed in a year and is almost 15 million tons higher than EPA's, also shows a relatively flat supply trend. However, what both sets of statistics show should be obvious. Per capita paper consumption is declining. Not by a great deal, but down nonetheless.

What is happening is that we keep finding ways to avoid paper. E-mail, for instance, replaces paper mail. Newspapers, magazines and books can be read on-line. The newspaper industry is a particularly good example of this change. Newspapers keep laying off writers as circulation and advertising decline. Classified advertising in particular — for rentals, home sales and jobs — is rapidly moving from print to bytes. Ten years from now, we will still have newspapers, but they will be smaller and more locally focused. Don't cry too many tears for the newspaper industry, though. Profits are dropping but operating margins remain in the upper 10 percent or higher, and that's not bad at all!

Yes, on-line articles and e-mail can be printed out, but I've subscribed to the on-line edition of the Wall Street Journal for at least seven years, and I've used far less paper reprinting stories than if I had bought a paper copy of each daily edition. The beauty of on-line “paper” is that it shifts the cost of using paper from the publisher to the end user. As we print out newspaper stories or e-mails, we become the “manufacturer” who must be held responsible for the ultimate recycling or disposal of the paper product.

We will continue to find new ways to use paper. On-line purchases need more packaging than bulk deliveries of the same product to brick stores. And who knows, paper bags may make a comeback as we learn more about the perils of plastic bags.

Are we using less paper? Probably. Are we going paperless? No.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected].

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

TAGS: Paper Business