The (recycling) paper chase

That newspapers have a short shelf life can be a humbling thought for a journalist. More comforting is the knowledge that as Americans toss them out, more than three-quarters are recycled - part of a growing trend in paper recycling in general.

Last month, the American Forest and Paper Association reported that paper recycling reached a record high in the US in 2005. More than 51 percent of all paper products consumed was recovered, up considerably from 1990, when 33 percent was recycled.

The environment thanks Americans for that trend, because paper is the heavyweight of solid waste. As more people placed newspapers, junk mail, and cardboard cartons in recycling bins, they sent 4 million fewer tons of paper to landfills last year than they did in 1990 - even while consuming 15 percent more paper products.

That's real progress, but the nation shouldn't stop there. About 43 million tons of paper products are not recycled, so landfills still feel the strain. So does paper manufacturing, which greatly depends on the recycled stuff in the production process. (Saving trees is less of an issue, because the lumber used at US paper mills is basically new growth, coming largely from tree plantations and thinning.)

In the 1990s, demand for recycled paper and paperboard lagged and the market suffered a glut, making paper pickup too expensive for many municipalities. But that's no longer the case, because of the insatiable economic appetite in China, which is gobbling up a fifth of the world's recovered paper. China is short on trees and recycling is less of an option in a country that sends so much of its paper abroad as packaging in exports.

The US paper industry also sees increased demand for recycled paper fiber coming from India, and is looking to further the US recovery rate.

That won't be possible unless Americans become more enthusiastic - and more efficient - paper recyclers. (They should also improve their overall recovery rate of solid municipal waste, which is only about 25 percent.) It was only a few years ago that New York City gave up all recycling because it was too expensive. But in 2004, rising landfill fees brought it back. That factor, combined with market demand for many types of recycled waste, should spur government and business to recover more, and to make recycling easier for the 85 percent of Americans with access to recycling.

That's the idea in Denver, a latecomer. Waste recovery in the mile-high city has boomed since it introduced "single-stream" recycling last summer. Consumers in some parts of the city, and in other savvy-minded US municipalities, don't have to sort plastics, glass, metal, and paper, but can toss everything into large curbside carts or commercial-sized bins at convenient locations. The sorting takes place off-site at an upgraded facility run by Waste Management.

Meanwhile Philadelphia is experimenting with frequent-recycler awards to encourage consumers. In a program run by a start-up called RecycleBank, residents can earn spending coupons by the weight of their recycling, calculated from computer chips embedded in their bins.

Environmental consciousness is at the heart of recycling, but better market incentives are needed to give that consciousness a needed push.

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