Paper Recovery Up

LAST YEAR, FOR THE FIRST time, more than half of the paper and paperboard that Americans consumed was recovered for recycling, according to statistics from the Washington, D.C.-based American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA). The paper recovery rate in 2003 of 50.3 percent is the result of more than a decade's worth of strong growth. In 1990, only 33.5 percent of the paper consumed in the United States was recovered for recycling. (The AF&PA says that roughly 99 percent of the recovered paper is recycled.) While paper recovery has spiked, the reuse of other recyclables has declined or gone flat, creating a divide in the recycling world.

The aluminum beverage can recycling fell to 48.4 percent in 2002, according to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI) in Arlington, Va. In 1992, the rate stood at 65 percent, according to CRI.

Meanwhile, the Alexandria, Va.-based Glass Packaging Institute last calculated the glass beverage container recycling rate at roughly 31 percent in 1998. CRI estimates that rate has been steadily slipping since then.

Also, the recycling rate for post-consumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles has tumbled in recent years, from about 40 percent nine years ago to 19.8 percent in 2002, according to a joint report from the Arlington, Va.-based American Plastics Council and several other organizations. The report did note that the recycling rate for high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bottles has increased slightly in recent years, reaching 24.2 percent in 2002.

What's behind the recycling statistics?

Miller says that paper recycling rates are high because there is so much paper — it constitutes 40 percent of the waste stream and offers states, counties and cities a sure-fire way to raise overall recycling rates quickly.

Just as important, the commodity markets for recycled paper have grown stronger and larger. According to Miller, mills have purchased mixed paper in recent years for as much as $60 per ton. Newspaper prices have ranged from $66 per ton to $87 per ton, depending on the grade. Also, corrugated material has commanded $93 per ton, while high-grade writing and printing paper has garnered prices approaching $100 per ton.

By comparison, prices for other recyclables have lagged. Miller says that recyclable buyers in New York state will pay only about $40 per ton for aluminum cans. Tonnage rates for other materials are even lower, averaging from $17 per ton for PET to $23 per ton for HDPE and $30 per ton for clear glass.

Paper and Paperboard Recovery Rate

1992 38.5%
1993 38.7%
1994 41.5%
1995 44.0%
1996 45.6%
1997 44.2%
1998 44.6%
1999 44.5%
2000 46.0%
2001 48.3%
2002 48.2%
2003 50.3%
Source: American Forest and Paper Association