Circular File

Circular File: Scudder's Folly

Almost 60 years ago, a New Jersey newspaper publisher was using a blender to mix newspapers and water in a sink. He was looking for a way to separate ink from the newspaper’s fibers. After further research at a university, Garden State Paper, the world’s first newspaper deinking mill, opened in 1961. Within two decades, three more deinking mills were operating. Dick Scudder, who died in early July at the age of 99, was the co-inventor of newspaper deinking. In doing so, he also launched modern recycling.

Other newspaper mill executives laughed at the idea of deinking. They could not conceive of old newspapers as a useful raw material for new newspapers. They called Garden State “Scudder’s Folly. ” He had the last laugh. Today, recycled fiber is a common component of newspapers.

But to succeed, these mills had to solve two big problems. One was to prove that recycled newsprint was as good as virgin. Over time this happened and deinked newsprint proved it was as good as new.

The other problem was to secure a reliable supply of raw material. At first, Garden State relied on the network of traditional paperstock dealers. They would buy unsold newspapers and spoiled press runs. These dealers would also pay for newspaper collected as fundraisers by volunteer groups such as the Boy Scouts. The former supply was relatively steady but paper drives were too dependent on volunteers. Deinking mills needed a more reliable supply.

The advent of Earth Day in 1970 provided one potential answer with the proliferation of recycling centers. But their reliance on volunteer workers was a problem. Worse yet, in those days, quality specs were demanding. Even “rotogravure paper” (Sunday supplements) was a no-no. Not many people could be bothered to consistently supply good raw materials.

To solve the supply problem Garden State began promoting curbside collection of old newspapers. It could be done. San Francisco’s hauling company had been collecting newspaper from households for decades. Then in 1970, Madison, Wis., began a curbside recycling program. By the middle of the decade, more than one hundred American communities were collecting newspapers at the curbside.

EPA jumped into the picture with extensive promotions of what it then called “source separation.” The agency published a study of the different ways to collect newspaper such as racks under the body of the garbage truck or a trailer behind the truck. In 1976, the agency even funded a test of America’s first multi-material recycling programs in Somerville and Marblehead, Mass. Back then, “multi-material” meant newspapers, glass bottles and metal cans. A modest start perhaps, but at the time it was revolutionary.

Curbside recycling progressed through the ’70s, with more than 250 programs by the end of the decade, some of them multi-material. Then, in 1987, the Garbage Barge set sail.  At that time, perhaps 600 municipalities had curbside recycling. Within three years, most states had some kind of recycling law. Curbside programs began collecting a wide array of materials. Now most American communities collect recyclables separately from trash.

I’m not sure what Dick Scudder would have thought about our shift from recycling to diversion. But I’m sure he was proud of what he started. It all began in a kitchen sink with a blender, water and some old newspapers. And somewhere out there, another entrepreneur may well be working on the next big step.

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