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Paper Packaging Produced in Canada Nears 80% Recycled Content

While traveling in Toronto recently, a colleague shared an article with me: a brief update in the trade news.  There are reportedly 30 mills in Canada capable of producing packaging grades – of those mills, almost two thirds produce products with 100% recycled content.  The average has climbed consistently over the past 20 years and has reached a current high of 77%. Big surprise?  Front page, headline news for the Toronto Sun or the Globe and Mail?  Not really.  More like business as usual. 

U.S. industry statistics show similar trends.  Most of the recycled fiber consumed by U.S. manufacturers ends up in packaging grades.  There is also a great demand for our waste paper overseas (primarily China).  And what do they do with the fiber?  They make cardboard boxes.

Packaging grades are one of the best uses for recycled fiber.  It is a cost effective use of waste paper and delivers products with the right quality attributes for the job at hand.  And industry experts know this.

It is not only a case of economic forces working successfully; it’s a great win for the environment as well.  Using recycled fiber in products like corrugated containers or molded pulp applications (like egg cartons or drink trays) typically requires minimal processing. These applications do not require bleaching and for many products the ink need not be removed.  The result is a high yield of fiber recovery (less waste) and less impact on the environment than when deinking is required.

When environmental and economic forces come together like this, we truly have a sustainable business model.  On the flip side, when we buy deinked pulp at Sappi for use in our premium coated fine papers, it costs us more than making virgin fiber.  And we have to pass that cost on to our customers.  Furthermore, deinked market pulp is routinely delivered with a higher carbon footprint than the virgin pulp made on site.  So while we offer grades with up to 30% recycled fiber derived from post consumer waste, those grades come with a premium cost, and a higher carbon footprint.

But my thoughts above are not just an industry perspective.  The US Environmental Protection Agency figured this out years ago.  In their procurement guidelines they specify , 45-100% recycled content in industrial paperboard, 25-50% in corrugated containers and 10% in coated fine papers used for annual reports, posters, brochures and magazines.

When it comes to procurement practices related to recycled content, we urge paper buyers to take a lesson from the EPA.  Think holistically, because with recycled content, it is not a one size fits all solution where more is always better.  There is a best use of recycled fiber.

Laura Thompson has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of New Hampshire and an M.S. and PhD in Paper Science from the Institute of Paper Science and Technology.  Since 1995, she has held a variety of positions within the paper industry including R&D, mill environmental, product development for specialties and coated fine paper, and most recently sustainability.  Since joining Sappi in 2006, Laura has quickly emerged as an industry leader in the field of sustainable development.

Reposted from the eQ Blog with permission from Sappi Fine Paper North America. For more information, please visit Sappi’s eQ Microsite.

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4 thoughts on “Paper Packaging Produced in Canada Nears 80% Recycled Content

  1. Could you please share a source supporting this statement above to help us dissect it, thanks: “deinked market pulp is routinely delivered with a higher carbon footprint than the virgin pulp made on site.”

    The demand for recycled across all grades has been a primary reason for the increased recovery of waste paper over the past decade, bringing us to 63% recovery. This is important, it has helped reduce landfilling of paper by a whopping 16 million tons since 2005. But we are still sending a line of trash barges about 640 miles long into US landfills every year, and we can push the recovery number higher by supporting recycling at all levels. Like through buying more recycled paper.

    Much of what we can still target for rapidly increasing recovery is in offices and schools which produce high-quality, sorted, white paper. It would be ridiculous to send this off to China to make into brown boxes. We should be using it to create jobs and high-quality products right near the communities where it was recovered.

    The EPA’s recommendations, which are interpreted by many as minimum levels, are from 2007. The recent State of the Paper Industry Report from the Environmental Paper Network noted that since then there has a been a surge in eco-papers available, including high-performance sheets with high post consumer recycled content, raising the bar quite a bit.

    The EPA also says unequivocally that buying recycled paper “creates jobs and helps strengthen the economy; conserves natural resources; saves energy; and reduces solid waste, air and water pollutants, and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.”

    At papersteps(dot)org you can find independent purchasing recommendations from leading conservation organizations. At this link you can navigate to the EcoPaper Database which identifies many, many high recycled content papers available today that were not available in 2007. The EcoPaper Database screens papers on their bleaching method and responsible fiber use to designate leadership papers available in North America, including a few made by SAPPI Fine Paper North America, and purchasers can look for themselves into performance and price. I think purchasers will be surprised by what they’ll find today.

    Likewise, I think leading companies are recognizing that large institutional purchasers are truly committed to greening their supply chain, and are investing in recycled content paper for its higher value to their own brand, even in the cases when the price of recycled can’t reach total parity with virgin tree fiber.

  2. Making cardboard boxes can indeed be an efficient way to reuse waste paper, but it’s not always the optimal way. A modern mill designed to manufacture recycled paper can make more productive use of old publication-grade paper.

    By transforming old magazines, newspapers and books into new publication paper, recycled mills preserve the quality of the original paper fiber. The extra energy and processing it took to produce a sheet of publication paper in the first place is not wasted. The purity of the bright, white fiber is preserved by reusing it in new publication paper. Such fibers can be recycled many, many times. Significant amounts of energy, water and chemicals are saved in making publication paper from recycled fibers instead of from trees.

    To achieve these environmental conditions, recycling must be done sensibly. The issues of higher pricing and greater transportation impact described with the Sappi mill is often a natural outcome of injecting recycled fiber into a paper mill designed to use virgin (not recycled) pulp. Traditional paper mills are sited in rural areas (where the trees are), not in cities (where waste paper is). Injecting recycled fiber into a virgin production line is usually not an efficient use of the facility nor of the recycled fiber — environmentally, operationally or economically.

    By contrast, modern recycled mills are sited in urban areas, close to the waste paper. These mills are specifically designed to process recovered paper and don’t face the transportation and pricing challenges reported by traditional mill(s). FutureMark Paper Company is a prime example of a highly efficient, purpose-built recycled paper mill. The company makes coated mechanical paper averaging 93% recycled content (35% PCW) with quality and pricing that’s completely competitive with traditional paper made from trees. Customers appreciate having high-recycled options that don’t demand a price premium. They also like that they can recycle their unused magazines, catalogs and advertising circulars with FutureMark, thus “closing the loop.” FutureMark’s new model of urban paper recycling makes sense, environmentally and economically. http://www.futuremarkpaper.com

  3. By its own declaration, the reason EPA recommends varying the amount of PCW by grade is simply due to market availability – not, as implied here, because we shouldn’t be using PCW for printing & writing grades.

    From the very procurement guidelines cited in the article above: “Rather than specifying just one level of recycled content, the RMAN recommends ranges for many paper products, which reflect what is currently available in the United States. The recycled content of paper products varies; therefore, you should contact local paper mills or merchants to determine product availability. Try to purchase paper containing the highest content that is available to you.”

    Let’s not try to misstate the EPA’s recommendations – they unequivocally recommend as high a PCW content as possible in all grades.

  4. In response to Joshua Martin’s opening request in his comment posted 8/16:
    We have several points of reference to support the statement “deinked market pulp is routinely delivered with a higher carbon footprint than the virgin pulp made on site.”

    First, we have primary data from our deinked pulp (DIP) suppliers. We have been collecting data from our suppliers for several years. The data includes both scope 1 (direct emissions) and scope 2 (emissions associated with purchased electricity). Year after year, we have found that each of our DIP suppliers has higher emissions than the scope 1 and 2 emissions at our Cloquet, MN and Skowhegan, ME facilities. Please note: we do not disclose suppliers’ data without permission nor do we share exactly who our suppliers are for competitive reasons.
    Secondly, the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement has developed a tool called The Footprint Estimator for Forest Products™ (FEFPro™). This tool was developed specifically for looking at the carbon footprint of paper products. In addition for allowing the input of primary data sources, the tool is equipped with default values that are based on industry data. The default values for bleached market kraft pulp are roughly 40% lower than the default values for deinked pulp. While it is always best to use primary data for evaluating a product, I found the default values to be a fair representation when compared to our suppliers’ data.
    Finally, The Paper Task Force White Paper No. 3 contains robust data in the appendices that support my statement. While this data is a little “old” I believe it is fair to assume that advancements made by various industry segments would be similar. In other words, I believe my general conclusion is still fair although I believe the absolute numbers are not representative of today’s practices. It is important to look for the actual manufacturing data, not the compiled Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) results because methodology has a great impact on the overall conclusions within LCA’s. The full paper is entitled. “LIFECYCLE ENVIRONMENTAL COMPARISON:VIRGIN PAPER AND RECYCLED PAPER-BASED SYSTEMS” Originally Published on December 19, 1995 Data in Sections II and IV and Appendices C and D Updated in February 2002.
    I must reiterate: Sappi is a strong advocate for recycling. All of our coated fine papers are recyclable. While the industry continues to improve recovery rates, the recovery of printing and writing grades tends to lag behind other grades and we strongly encourage the use of “please recycle” claims and logos on printed materials. We also support several recycling advocacy programs through our trade association and other affiliations.

    We do not believe that the use of recovered fiber is a one size fits all solution and we promote a practice of “best use” for recycled fiber. In short: Once paper has been recovered, it is important to put the recovered fiber to its best use—in the right locations and the right grades based on evaluating and balancing economic and environmental consequences. Ultimately, recycled fiber should be used in products where it displaces fiber with a higher carbon footprint.

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