Hot Commodity

WHEN THE INTERNET TOOK OFF, some people predicted paper would die. Yet years after the technology boom and bust, people still prefer to read and save a “hard copy.”

As I drive past my local Krispy Kreme every morning on the way to work, I'm reminded that people's desire for doughnuts, like paper, will never completely fade (although the smell of paper making isn't as enticing). I salivate when I see their illuminated sign, and transform into Homer Simpson dreaming of the sugary glaze.

At one time, Krispy Kremes were selling like hotcakes, taking the gooey Southern staple to uptown zip codes. Paper has been equally sought after. Yet at a recent session at WasteExpo 2003, paper was characterized as a formerly desirable recycling commodity. Today, e-waste has replaced paper as the hot topic.

Ginny Stevenson of the Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) notes that paper recycling has since gone by the wayside, with twenty-four percent of her city's paper remaining in the waste stream. “We've forgotten what we started with … office paper, newspaper, junk mail,” she says of Seattle's waning recycling efforts.

Krispy Kreme's growth also has slowed. When the chain opened shop in Santa Clara, Calif., customers could wait two hours before experiencing the doughnut's holy grail. But after cooling your heels all morning just to reach the front door, you have to ask, was it worth the effort?

The same question can be applied to increased paper recycling efforts. The American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced a new paper recovery goal of 55 percent of all paper consumed nationwide by 2012. In 1995, the paper recovery goal was set at 50 percent, which the industry expects to meet in 2003. But by developing integrated public-private sector partnerships, the EPA and AF&PA believe they can educate communities and businesses to recover an additional 5 percent of high-quality papers.

Paper recycling, of course, will always exist because there is a demand for the commodity. But how much effort and cost will it take to meet the new goals? Already more paper by weight is recovered from the municipal solid waste stream for recycling than all other materials combined, including plastic, metal and glass. Will the cost and infrastructure needed to collect, process and recycle another 5 percent of paper really be offset by the environmental benefits and extra dollars gained by more recycling?

Relatively inexpensive solutions like more education in green-minded Seattle may produce a higher paper-recycling rate, but solutions are not universal. An extra 5 percent of recovered paper may “smell” like a good idea, but like the doughnut lover standing in line, communities should ask, is the effort worth the reward?

The author is the editor of Waste Age