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As more scrap paper gets collected for recycling, complaints about contaminants and outthrows are on the rise. Mills and recyclers are working to educate their suppliers about what they want and why a clean supply stream is so important.

By Kim Fernandez

Think about paper as a conveyance. As a container or wrapper, it conveys a product--a pizza, a ream of paper, a bouquet of flowers--from point A to point B. Paper also conveys information from the writer to the reader, be it a grocery list written on the back of an envelope or a first-edition novel. It’s ironic, then, that in conveying the needs of paper mills back to the scrap paper suppliers, the paper chain breaks down. Paper destined for recycling is getting contaminated with nonpaper materials or with kinds of paper a particular mill does not want. With paper prices and demand at today’s lows, it’s never been more important for recyclers and mills to get from suppliers the paper they want, how they want it.

Recyclers say they constantly work to educate their clients and the public about the paper they recycle--what is and isn’t acceptable, how to most effectively recycle office paper and other grades, and why it’s important to follow the guidelines they’ve established for paper collection. The education process continues with collection contractors and even the recyclers’ own collectors and drivers. When push comes to shove, they say, they might end a business relationship with a building owner or company that can’t get it right. Supply integrity is that important.

Troubling trends
First, the good news: The United States recovered for recycling 56 percent of the paper the country consumed in 2007, which is a new record, according to the American Forest & Paper Association (Washington, D.C.). But demand for recovered paper is down--way down. AF&PA reports that demand in December 2008 was down 19 percent from the same period in 2007, and prices are down as well. End users are more stringent than ever about ensuring that the product they receive is clean and useful for their purposes.

The bad news is that contamination is on the rise. Municipalities and offices are trying to find ways to make it easier for people to collect paper, explains Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council (San Francisco). The problem with that, she says, is that easier on the consumer side often means things are more difficult for processors. “Collection systems in most cities have gone to single-streaming, where everything gets combined” in one bin, she says. “Up to 75 percent of what’s going into residential recycling bins is some kind of paper, but it’s contaminated with other [recyclable] materials, food waste, and liquids. Contamination is probably the biggest issue we see.” In other words, the recycling method that’s almost certainly resulting in a greater quantity of paper is also resulting in poorer quality.

Two trends might be further affecting what’s in that household paper stream right now, notes Andy Ockenfels, president of City Carton Recycling (Iowa City, Iowa). First, “we see a lot of offices being run out of homes now,” he says, “so you’ve got newspaper and cereal boxes in with office paper. We’re trying to let households know that all of that can go together [in the bin] with mixed paper.” Further, Ockenfels says, with the troubled economy, “people are eating at home [more] now,” and with more laid off workers, “we’re seeing more mixed paper coming in from curbside recycling programs as people spend more time at home.”

Contamination is even a problem in shredded paper, Hoover says. “People have started shredding CDs with their paper. If you’re trying to collect paper, it’s challenging to collect it and sort out the other materials in there,” she says.

Because City Carton specializes in supplying fiber to corrugated carton manufacturers, it has less of a problem than other recyclers do with contamination from other types of paper. It doesn’t matter so much if office sheets are thrown into bins with paper towel tubes, Ockenfels says. “As long as there’s brown fiber in with the mix, we can use it.” Single-stream recycling works for him, bringing his company more paper overall.

That’s not necessarily the case for other paper recyclers who supply other types of mills. “Paper mills that manufacture recycled paper require high-quality recovered paper with minimal contamination in order to meet the demands and performance requirements of their customers,” says Pete Grogan, manager of market development and innovation for International Paper (Auburn, Wash.). The specific needs vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and product to product, Grogan says. If you’re purchasing corrugated, “you don’t want mixed paper, you don’t want six-pack containers, you don’t want cereal boxes, and you don’t want nonpaper contamination.”

Even two companies making the same type of paper can have different needs. “All mills are not created equal,” Grogan says. “Different mills have different equipment and different infrastructure, and they have to approach things in a different manner.” He likens paper recycling to cooking. Imagine, he says, asking two people to make lasagna for dinner. You’d end up with two pans of lasagna on the table, but the methods the two people used--the ingredients and the recipes--would likely be worlds apart. The same holds true for paper mills. Though they all finish the day with recycled paper, no two mills do that in exactly the same way. And that’s what he tries to explain to paper consumers.

“Specification tolerances are very equipment-specific,” Grogan says. “The technical staff and mill procurement group work together to define the exact quality specifications required at an individual mill. We can only produce recycled paper from paper; anything else in a bale of recovered paper--be it glass, wire, plastic, or something else--is a contaminant. Some contaminants wash out in the process, while other contaminants can actually damage equipment or affect the paper’s ability to meet key needs of end-use customers, such as smoothness and printability.”

How can recyclers continue to encourage recycling but at the same time get a better, cleaner product? Education is the key, they say. For the ordinary person, “there’s a bit of a disconnect between thinking about recycling as keeping something out of a landfill versus recycling as a way to manufacture without using virgin materials,” explains the NRDC’s Hoover. Recyclers must get people to make the connection.

Grogan invites International Paper customers to the company’s recycling plants to watch the papermaking process. It’s a very effective way of getting across the importance of sticking to the paper processing rules, he says. “Rule number one is that we can only make paper from paper.” It also shows them “the problems and costs created by contamination,” he says.

agrees that firsthand visits are among the best ways to drive this particular message home. “I think it’s a fantastic thing to do,” she says. “I recently took a bunch of interns to a San Francisco recycler’s recovery facility. Even in a city the size of San Francisco, the primary way of sorting [at that facility] is through a pickline. That was shocking to folks--they assume that because it’s a huge system, it must be automated. But you get there and see that there are people picking out bits one by one. Then they get it--what they throw in this bin is going to end up being handled by several human beings.”

The education must continue beyond the primary contact at a company “all the way down the line,” Hoover says. “You have to make sure everybody involved is able to talk with one another” about the proper procedures. “You really want building management to work with the custodial staff so they all understand what you’re trying to do,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many times I hear of people in offices doing what they’re supposed to do--sorting paper into the bins under their desks--and then somebody stays late one night and watches the custodial staff dump it all into one container. That’s frustrating for everyone.”

Recyclers and mills can provide further education in a variety of ways, Hoover says, from regular newsletters and fliers to ensuring that municipality Web sites are up to date and as complete as possible. “I’m not sure there’s a standard way to go about that,” she says. “I’ve been working on recycling issues for 25 years, and I’m confused” about what to recycle sometimes, she says. “If I’m confused, I assume everybody else is confused too.”

Ockenfels says he’s worked with his municipal clients to get the word out to residents about what can and cannot be recycled. But because his paper restrictions are fewer than other recyclers, it’s not as much of a challenge. “The public and the industries and the commercial businesses we deal with have to buy into the program,” he says. “But they want to see it succeed. Because of that, we haven’t seen people abusing it or putting trash into [the bins]. You always have the oddball thing that gets put in there now and then, but for the most part, I’d grade it an A.”

Specification Support
Though each recycler and mill establishes its own rules about acceptable and unacceptable paper, it helps to base those rules on some authority, such as the ISRI scrap specifications, recyclers say. “Within IP’s paper mill system, we use those specifications to define the quality requirements for our supply customers,” Grogan says. “There are 50 different grades of paper used by the industry, both in buying and selling,” he explains. “We establish the grade [we’re purchasing] and agree with the company that’s supplying paper to us that we’re going to purchase that grade, and we talk about prohibited materials and outthrow materials. … We review all of this with our suppliers and then we get them into the mill to understand the process. … We work very closely with our supply customers to communicate the exact requirements, and we ask them to supply samples of materials that might be in question.”

Using the ISRI specs gives some credibility to the mills’ rules and demonstrates that the rules aren’t just arbitrary, set on a whim, he says. For the most part, customers understand and do their best to comply once it’s all been explained. “Fortunately, we've developed a very loyal premier supply customer base over the course of many years and have cultivated a cooperative process for working through questions or issues,” Grogan says. “The suppliers want us to be successful at producing high-quality recycled-content paper because when we do that, we close the recycling loop with them and everyone wins.”

International Paper rarely changes its rules but it has, on occasion, done so to include, exclude, or categorize new or different materials that hit the market, Grogan says. When that happens, the company is careful to ensure that everyone understands exactly what papers the mills want and what materials they don’t.

Contaminant consequences
Meeting the mill consumer’s need for paper of the correct grade and without contaminants is more than just a good idea--it’s essential to making paper recycling work. If paper does not get recycled into new paper, the cost of collection does not get offset by the economic and environmental benefits of recycling, creating a system that can’t be sustained.

“Too often, manufacturers of recycled paper are not being involved in conversations about the way paper should be collected,” Hoover says, “and as single-streaming has gotten more and more [to be] the standard, paper mills report getting up to 25 percent of their bales with paper contaminants. When those [contaminants] make it all the way to a paper mill,” she points out, the mill has to dispose of them. “So even though [people] thought they were recycling,” the material “may well end up in a landfill somewhere else.”

Kim Fernandez is a writer based in Bethesda, Md. This article originally appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Scrap magazine (

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