By Theron Jourdan The good news is that paper recovery rates continue to increase year after year in North America and Europe (with the exception of 2009-2010 in Europe due to a dip in production during the economic downturn). In March, the American Forest & Paper Association launched its Better Practices Better Planet 2020 initiative, establishing an ambitious goal of 70 percent paper recovery by 2020. (The re covery rate was 63.5 percent in 2010.) A lot of the increase in paper recovery can be attributed to the increase in easy residential and commercial recycling through single stream recovery systems, as 87 percent of Americans now have access to curbside or drop-off paper recycling programs. Yet I can't help but notice that the quality of recovered fiber is never included in the equation. Is single stream recovery doing more harm than good in terms of creating technical challenges associated with mixed paper recovery streams? One advantage virgin tree fiber has over recovered fiber in making paper is its reliability as a consistent quality material input. Recovered paper can provide quality and reliable sources of fiber, but there are other competing factors in play that need to be considered for achieving levels of quality and reliability required for certain paper types. Turning recovered fiber into recycled paper products efficiently is dependent on the quality of feedstock and the technical ability of a manufacture to de-ink, clean, and re-pulp the fiber. Contaminants such as food scraps, plastic, and metal make it more difficult for manufactures and lead to the further downcycling of the fiber. Furthermore, as our waste management systems move from a homogeneous to a more heterogeneous stream of recovered fiber through single stream recycling, it presents additional challenges and constraints with the mixture of different paper types and qualities. For example, a magazine or catalog has different fiber characteristics and shiny coatings than an old newspaper does, which impacts the re-pulping process — and any additional processing likely causes unnecessary environmental impact. In addition, recovered paper is a commodity and the thirst for fiber of China and other emerging markets were responsible for the consumption of 39 percent of the paper recovered in the United States in 2010, up 5 percent since 2007. Their ability to provide new capacities for processing mixed paper is making it difficult for the North American industry to compete and improve the quality of recovered paper streams since a market for lower quality streams exists elsewhere. So instead we export our recovered paper to get processed in a region with less than exemplary environmental controls and then it gets shipped back to us as packaging and the products we buy. I can remember when it was required to sort all recyclables or it wouldn't even get picked up. It wasn't that much of a bother and it felt like I was contributing to the recycling and reuse of the materials I consumed. Today, everything goes into one bin and requires no sorting; it feels like I'm passing on the responsibility down the supply chain. Recovered paper as a fiber source provides many environmental benefits, most significantly the efficient use of a resource (trees) through the recycling and reuse of its fiber. But is our fixation on the Recovery Rate number, often achieved via single stream and mixed stream recovery systems, creating a negative trade-off and diminishing environmental returns by reducing the consistency of quality recovered fiber? Article courtesy of

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