Does recycling paper make sense?

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Area paper recyclers are still reeling from the closure of a regional paper mill that paid a premium for old newsprint and office paper, and made paper recycling economical, even profitable.

In the wake of the closure – and in view of bigger-picture market pressures – not everyone is optimistic that it’s still worth it to recycle paper. But so far, local waste managers are still willing to try.

In operation for the past 60 years, the Snowflake, Ariz., paper-recycling mill was a boon to the region. It accepted and used about 30,000 tons of waste paper each month, including large quantities of newspaper from across Colorado.

The Montezuma County Landfill by itself shipped 116 tons of paper in 2011, alongside 47 tons from the Cortez-based Four Corners Recycling Initiative, said Deb Barton, the landfill manager. So far this year, the landfill shipped 68 tons and the city shipped 88.

The Snowflake plant was good while it lasted, Barton said. “It did pay for processing costs. It paid its way; it became sustainable.”

But the thing that made the mill so popular – its ability to accept waste that contributors didn’t have to separate at home – was part of its undoing.

Because the waste wasn’t separated, it often arrived at the plant in unsavory form – mixed not just with other recyclables, like plastics, but with food waste and other contaminants. Besides complicating the cleaning process, such contamination also led to an inferior paper product.

“Reduced quality of old newsprint as municipalities moved to singlestream waste recovery, combined with oldnewsprint price volatility driven by export markets, were obstacles on the input side,” said Kevin Clarke, president and CEO of Catalyst Paper, the Canadian company that owned the Snowflake mill, when the closure was announced. “Added to these challenges are the protracted demand decline for recycled newsprint and other printing papers.”

The market for recycled newsprint is down partly because of a shrunken newspaper industry nationally – which took a bite out of the mill’s supply as well as the market for its product. But the problem has a wider reach.

“If China doesn’t want paper or products, we may not have a market globally any more,” observed Montezuma County’s Barton. She pointed to the recent announcement that Newsweek magazine is stopping its print publication and going digital, and said she sees it as part of an ongoing trend that will keep paper markets depressed.

Digital overload

“The paradigm is shifting to electronic reading; the need for paper is changing,” Barton said. And that presents a whole new challenge for facilities like hers: “Personally, my biggest concern now is electronic waste.”

Barton says electronic waste – castaway televisions and cell phones, for example – is far more dangerous when it gets to the landfill because of hazardous constituents, such as mercury. Colorado has had a law since 2002 banning commercial electronics from being tossed into landfills, and it’s recently enacted a similar ban for residential electronic waste. That will go into effect next year.

Soon, consumers will have to bring their old TVs, computers and phones to a semiannual electronic-waste-collection event, just like businesses do. And it will all get shipped to specialized handlers like the one Montezuma County is currently using called Natural Evolutions – a Native American-owned firm in Tusla, Okla., that has done the tedious work of acquiring all three available certifications for handling electronic waste. There are only 16 such facilities in the country.

From Barton’s perspective, if electronic waste is indeed going to take up space in the waste stream formerly occupied by paper, it’s not a welcome shift: “My guys could get sicker from handling it,” she said.

Cheaper to bury

As for paper, the closure of the Snowflake mill has left the Montezuma County Landfill’s broker hunting for a place to send it – and so far, good deals appear scarce.

It takes $46 a ton to process waste paper before it can be shipped to a recycler like the Snowflake plant, Barton says – and that doesn’t include the cost to collect it. The last quote the landfill received from an outlet seeking to replace the Snowflake mill was $45 a ton – not enough to make the effort worthwhile.

Barton says somewhere around $70 a ton is sustainable, allowing some savings for periodic equipment costs and repairs.

With the market the way it is, and without a viable outlet, “it costs us more to recycle the material than to bury it,” Barton says.

Saving landfill space isn’t an incentive to recycle, she says – the landfill has 250 years of life left, even if no recycling were to take place. And burying paper doesn’t present an environmental issue; the ingredients are generally benign. But taking paper from the recycling bins and putting it in the ground presents a social dilemma.

“There’s a feeling of betrayal,” she pointed out, if people are making the effort to recycle and it just goes into the landfill anyway. Then again, she says, “if it’s going to cost them an arm and a leg … we could have the money for law enforcement.” Landfill staff have been working on another option – composting. They’re submitting a proposal to allow for a change in their permit to allow them to divert some paper and yard waste into composting materials.

Durango refuses to give up

The perspective is a little different at the city of Durango, where sustainability coordinator Mary Beth Miles insists there are plenty of reasons to continue recycling paper, even when the markets are down – and there’s always hope for a rebound.

Miles said the city’s waste paper is now going, along with cardboard, to an Albuquerque- based mill called Bio Papel. They’re paying only $30 a ton for the product – much less than what Snowflake was paying – but Miles said the math works out when you consider the prices the city is getting for its metal, plastic and glass.

Miles and her staff are gearing up to launch a major overhaul to the city’s curbside- recycling program, after the first of the year. People can call 970-375-5004 or sign up on the city’s website to participate in the expanded program, which will feature larger, rolling curbside bins and an expanded array of acceptable wastes including plastics numbered 1 through 7, newsprint and paper, and cardboard-like materials such as juice cartons and cereal boxes.

The program treads a fine line between convenience for consumers and the risk of contaminating the waste stream so that recycling becomes more difficult, as it did in Snowflake. Miles expects the convenience will boost participation in the city’s recycling program by 30 percent – and she’s hoping a major public-education campaign will help to deter the likelihood of contamination.

First and foremost, she said, glass should be kept out of the recycling bins, because the broken shards render paper unusable. She also hopes people will remember to remove lids from and rinse out containers destined for the recycle bins, and pay attention to what doesn’t belong, like Styrofoam.

To help with the transition, the city will employ “recycling ambassadors” to ride along on the collection trucks, letting people know if they’re including materials that don’t belong.

“I know that the issue of the Snowflake closure is something we are going to have to deal with,” said Lisa Roche, with the Four Corners Recycling Initiative.

“However, I don’t think that is going to change our desire to continue to recycle paper.

“The tonnage that is recycled is large and I know that where I work, the school system in Cortez, they are committed to it. It really passes on the importance of recycling to the kids.”

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From November 2012.