After months of debate between environmentalists and the paper industry, President Clinton fulfilled his Earth Day promise by signing an executive order that is predicted to create new markets for the ple-thora of recycled paper that has been collected in local programs.
The order sets guidelines for federal agencies to purchase "environmentally preferable" products, in-cluding recycled paper, concrete and cement containing fly ash, re-refined lubricating oil, retread tires and insulation containing recovered materials.
Its stipulation that all paper purchased by the federal government must consist of at least 20 percent post-consumer recycled materials by 1994 has received mixed reactions.
Although the federal government uses 300,000 tons of paper each year, which is less than 2 percent of the 22 million tons produced, the National Recycling Coalition (NRC) estimates that each percentage point of post-consumer content added to the federal standard represents six million pounds per year of paper that will be recycled. "Be-yond the federal government, this order can be expected to set new recycled product standards for state and local governments, as well as private sector purchases," said Marsha Rhea, NRC's executive director.
Although discarded paper represents 40 percent of all solid waste deposited in landfills, the paper industry is concerned that the order will not divert waste paper from landfills. "The high-speed machines that produce writing and printing paper can handle only about 10 percent recycled content before they clog and shut down," said John Easton, a spokesperson for the American Forest and Paper Association. "We have the capacity to service the 2 percent of the market that the federal government buys, but if the entire market de-manded 20 percent recycled content, we couldn't do it," he said.
Proponents of the order empa-thize with the paper companies' concerns. "The federal government's example will increase demand for recycled paper and make it a mainstream product," said Judy Usherson, a senior environmental analyst with the Eastern Research Group who has worked for years to implement the paper procurement guideline.
"It's an issue of economics," Us-herson said. "Producers of large tonnage commodity grades are geared to high-speed, low-cost production. The mills are not geared up to use recycled materials, so the government's purchases may have to come from more expensive sources."
To address price considerations, the order encourages waste prevention to absorb any in-creased cost incurred as a result of purchasing recycled products. Its wording calls for the use of 20 percent post-consumer recycled materials "to the maximum extent practicable," a phrase that allows the government to shop for bargains that do not necessarily meet the "environmentally preferable" definition (see chart).
The Environmental Protec-tion Agency (EPA) stresses that the 20 percent standard is a viable number for paper mills. "The environment and the economy are not inconsistent terms. Environmental progress doesn't have to be detrimental to the economy," said Dana Arnold, an environmental protection specialist at EPA.
Arnold is hopeful about the order's impact on the nation's recycling market. "Since there are no national standards for recycling, people look to the federal government to take the lead, and those practices become the national standards," she said.
The impact of increased demand is frightening to the paper industry, according to Easton, who emphasizes that the surplus of recycled materials consists mainly of news-print, which is too degraded to produce the high-quality paper used by the federal government. "We're currently only recovering about 4 percent of office paper. In order to meet the demand for recycled-content paper in 1995, we will have to recycle about 31 percent. Unless we can balance the supply and demand equation, we'll be in trouble," he said.