Supply Crisis?

RECYCLING IS IN TROUBLE AGAIN. In January, recycling business executives warned Congressional staff that they cannot get enough recyclables and that somebody has to do something now! We used to worry about too much supply and little demand, now we worry that too few recyclables are chasing too much demand.

Before we get our knickers in a knot, however, let's ask ourselves if a real crisis exists. Let's look at paper, clearly the most important recyclable for residential and curbside programs. Do we face a serious shortage of recyclable paper?

Unfortunately, no one crying supply wolf has come forth with hard data. They don't say the extent to which different paper grades are in short supply, the realistic upper limits to paper recycling or the marginal cost of additional paper recycling. Without data, how can we proceed?

What do the numbers say? According to the paper industry, America reached a 50 percent recycling rate in 2003. The industry says that 10 percent of the paper produced every year cannot be recovered. Unrecyclable paper products cited by the industry include construction paper, bathroom tissue and oil filters. Industry assumptions, however, appear to leave out a number of paper products that are unlikely to be recyclable, such as paper plates and cups, paper towels and napkins, polycoated milk cartons and food boxes, pizza boxes, wet strength boxes, and other similar items. A more realistic assumption may be that 15 percent to 20 percent of paper products are unrecyclable.

We also need to determine the realistic recycling levels for paper products we currently recycle. How much newspaper, for instance, can be recycled? 100 percent? 80 percent? According to the Washington-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 7.3 million tons of newspapers were recycled in 2001 for a 60 percent recycling rate. The paper industry, however, says that 9.3 million tons of newspaper were recycled in 2001 for a 68 percent rate (and the industry claims a 73 percent rate in 2003).

I don't know which number is right. Cynics will say that industry inflated its numbers to look good. But I don't buy that. Businesses rely on their trade association for accurate numbers. I believe the two numbers are calculated in good faith, but use different assumptions and different definitions of “newspaper.”

Nonetheless, both numbers show that some newspapers are not being recycled. Of the 3.5 million tons the industry says are not being recycled, how much more can be collected? I can think of many ways that newspapers could miss the recycling bin. They may be used to line a cat litter box or as a cover on a table while children are painting or doing craft projects with glue and glitter. They can be used to sop up spilled water or to start a fire in a fireplace. Whenever I fly, I see newspapers put in trash bags by flight attendants. In all these cases, the paper will be thrown away.

I have no doubt that some products may be entering a supply-side crisis. Until we start talking numbers, however, we cannot accurately define the problem. Without good data, we are clueless about realistic goals and the best way to achieve them.

Next month, I will look at the price paid for recyclables, China's impact on recycling markets and other factors in this debate.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of 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.