JOAN Q. PUBLIC bundles up her weekly stack of old newspapers, takes them to the neighborhood drop-off center, and returns home smiling. She's recycling - doing her share to save landfill space, trees, and energy. But for a price: In many areas, cities are having to pay recyclers to take their old newspapers. What used to fetch $30 a ton now costs the same to get rid of, primarily in cities in the Northeast. Quite simply, there is too much collected newsprint, and too few mills to recycle it all. Nor are there enough customers for the final recycled products.
Why the glut of newsprint?
Some blame environmentalists for pushing recycling laws too rapidly for paper mills to keep up. Others blame the mills for not investing in equipment to handle recycled pulp. Nearly everyone blames consumers for not buying enough products made from recycled fibers.
Still, no one disputes that the benefits of using recycled paper pulp outweigh the alternatives - burying or burning it, and chopping down more trees. To pay $30 a ton to recyclers is still cheaper than throwing newsprint in a landfill, which costs between $80 to $120 a ton in the Northeast.
So far, this part of the recycling loop has been the most successful, as thousands of communities across the country have initiated mandatory collection, or offer voluntary drop-off programs.
Last year, the United States used 13.6 million tons of newsprint. Of this, 4.5 million tons were collected after use from consumers. One-third of the latter amount was recycled into newsprint, and another third was made into paperboard (for cereal and shoe boxes). About half of all corrugated boxes were recovered and recycled.
At FM Fibers, a recycler in Weymouth, Mass., plant manager Ray Fisher says his collection prices are based not only on the grade of papers, but on how well they are separated. ``It costs us money to pay someone to sort the papers,'' he says.
Meanwhile in Haverhill, Mass., the North Shore Recycled Fibers plant just put in a collection system suitable for loose paper. ``Our mill can't get enough of it,'' says account executive Scott Maddren. This mill is paying $2.50 a ton for newsprint now.
Not enough mills
``With newsprint ... the need is to expand the recycling capacity of mills,'' says Sam Hartwell, research associate of Natural Resources Defense Council in New York. ``The bottleneck with paper recycling is the de-inking plant.''
At present, only eight mills in the US can remove ink from newsprint; this must be done before it can be made into rolls suitable for printing.
Further, the sludge that's left after a newspaper is de-inked is raising some eyebrows. Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling magazine in Portland, Ore., says the residual lead and cadmium from the de-inking and dioxin contamination from bleaching are growing problems that need to be addressed. ``Federal and state governments should ... look at all issues of manufacturing,'' he says. ``Recycling shouldn't be exempt.'' There is hope on the horizon. Two companies - Garden State Paper Company of Elmwood Park, N.J., and Jefferson Smurfit of Oregon City, Ore., are looking into building de-inking plants in the Northeast, where the bulk of collected newsprint waits. But they need money and customers. To build a new mill costs about $500 million.
And, as James L. Burke, president of Garden State Paper, says: ``If you can't sell it, there's no sense in making it.''
Scarce end markets
The most viable market for recycled newspapers is newsprint. So far, however, only a handful of newspapers use rolls made from recycled fibers. Most of this ``recycled'' newsprint is a mix of virgin fibers; often less than 25 percent is from recycled pulp. The biggest users of recycled newsprint are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Long Island's Newsday, and the Boston Globe.
Publishers point to two main reasons for not using more recycled newsprint: The supply is not steady and the quality is not as good as the virgin paper they use now. Some find recycled fibers less strong, not able to run thorugh the high-speed printers. Another complaint is the paper is not as bright as pristine pulp, and doesn't hold printing ink as well.
Enter legislation: Florida has begun to levy a 10-cent tax on virgin paper rolls. Other states, including California and Connecticut, have passed ``minimum content laws,'' requiring newspapers to contain a percentage - roughly 20 percent - of recycled fiber. Federal legislation introduced by Sens. Timothy E. Wirth (D) of Colorado and John Heinz (R) of Pennsylvania aims to produce a similar effect.
Procurement programs, whereby offices are required to purchase products made from recycled materials, are another way to ensure markets for recycled products. (In some cases, purchasers are allowed to spend extra money, say 10 percent more, on recycled products.)
An information referral service in Boston, Earthworm Inc., provides names of recycled paper distributors to interested parties. But there is still a lot of ``user resistance'' to recycled papers, says co-manager Adam Mitchell. He blames it on memories of the past. ``The trouble is people still think the quality of recycled products is like it was in the '70s. But it's much better. And the prices are competitive.''
Another option for dealing with newsprint is to find new uses, like egg cartons, kitty litter, cattle bedding, insulation, and garden mulch.
Expanding export markets is another possibility. To date, 30 percent of all used newsprint and other waste paper is shipped abroad, primarily to the Pacific Rim.
Favor given to virgin pulp
As Americans change their attitudes about throwing reusables away, government may have to rethink programs that give advantage to using virgin timber.
John Ruston, an economic analyst with the Environmental Defense Fund in New York, points his finger at tax breaks and subsidies that make using virgin pulp cheaper than recycled paper. These include: a low capital-gains tax on timber sales and early tax deductions for expenses incurred by timber companies.
What is to be done?
``In two to five years, [the paper] industry is going to recognize that there is a supply of underpriced, valuable raw materials out there,'' says Mr. Ruston. In the meantime, he says, ``We need to grit our teeth and pay people to take it away. The newsprint glut had to happen before we could have a major investment in facilities that use [old] newsprint.''
So don't throw this newspaper out. Someday you may be reading from its fibers again, or stashing it in the refrigerator full of eggs.