Yesterday's Papers

Forty years ago, The Rolling Stones cut the tracks for the “Between the Buttons” album. “Yesterday's Papers” is the second cut on the A, or first, side of the album (OK, who remembers vinyl records with A and B sides — have I just completely dated myself?).

Stones fans know that this song is important because it was the first one whose melody and lyrics were completely written by Mick Jagger. An ode to a discarded girlfriend, the lyrics ask, “who wants yesterdays [sic] paper, who wants yesterdays girl, who wants yesterdays paper,” and bluntly answer, “nobody in the world.”

OK, I know you can interpret the lyrics as just a put-down of an ex-girlfriend, labeling her yesterday's news. Goodbye Chrissie, you are history! That interpretation is kind of obvious.

But I prefer to think that Jagger made the reference deliberately because he knew about commodity markets. After all, he was a student at the London School of Economics before dropping out to become a singer. I like to think that one of his school papers involved the ups and downs of commodity markets and that he was particularly interested in wastepaper.

If he was, he knew that recycling markets operated strictly on supply and demand. Or more precisely, demand and supply. When wastepaper mills needed more paper, they paid more; when they needed less, they paid less. Supply responded in kind.

Today, we have a new answer to the question of who wants yesterday's papers: just about everybody! Wastepaper demand has remained unusually strong and steady for the last few years.

However, as Bill Moore of Moore and Associates notes, the supply of wastepaper, such as old newspaper, has not really increased in response to higher prices for those commodities. Nowadays, a market can pay more for yesterday's paper, but may not be able to get more.

Today, municipal programs supply yesterday's papers and other recyclables with little care for the demand for those materials. But, we haven't figured out how to pull recyclables out of businesses and multi-family housing. Even with strong recycling markets for the last few years caused by overseas demand for our wastepaper and scrap steel, we are faced with flat recycling rates for several materials, including several types of wastepaper.

One solution to the problem may have been provided by a panelist at the recent Paper Recycling Conference in Chicago. RecycleBank is a new business whose goal is to increase recycling by giving incentives to residents to recycle more. The company uses scales on collection trucks to weigh the amount of recyclables placed at a curbside.

For every 10 pounds of recyclables, a resident receives a coupon that can be redeemed at local retailers. In other words, if higher prices won't supply more recyclable paper, maybe bribes will.

One other comment from the Chicago conference provided some clues about the quality of this potential increased quantity. In spite of everything we hear about shoddy quality from single-stream collection, overseas markets view American wastepaper as a quality pack and look at European wastepaper as contaminated. Maybe single stream, with its lower costs, isn't such a bad idea after all.

Who wants yesterday's papers? Everybody in the world!

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect 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.