Is paper recycling bad for the environment?

| August 12, 2013

Stephen P. Ashkin is churning up some attention with a recent column that showcases a new perspective on paper recycling.

Ashkin asserts that, “In recent years, it has become clear that when it comes to paper, recycling may not be as good for the environment as previously thought.”

paper recycling

This paper is bound in preparation for the long recycling process. From Telstar Logistics.

The column, in an August edition of Environmental Leader, prompted a mix of praise and criticism in the comments section.

Ashkin serves as president of the Ashkin Group, a consulting firm working to “green” the cleaning industry. He writes, “When the fuel, water, and energy used to transport, process, and recycle paper are taken into account, along with all the carbon and greenhouse emissions released into the atmosphere by these processes, paper recycling may actually be quite detrimental to the environment.”

Ashkin reports that a “significant portion” of the paper recycled in the United States is imported, notably by China and other Asian countries. He breaks down the multi-step process that this imported paper undergoes. We’ll quote Ashkin directly for purposes of this list:

  • Recycled paper is picked up by waste handlers who deliver it to facilities where it is further processed, cut, and bundled for shipment.
  • These bundles are transported, typically by rail or truck, to port cities in the US.
  • The bundles are then put on ships headed for China or other nearby countries.
  • Once in China, the paper is transported once again by rail or truck to paper recycling centers.
  • There the paper is further processed, shaped, repackaged, and then transported to Chinese manufacturers and other users.
  • A good portion of the paper is also returned to the US, reversing the entire process.
paper recycling

Ashkin says recycling paper isn’t great for the environment, but is throwing paper in the trash really better? From RecycleReminders.

One could argue that Ashkin’s focus on what happens to the paper recycling that leaves our borders is limiting. However, Ashkin claims that, “according to some reports, paper is the number one US export to China.”

Ashkin’s views may be controversial, but he’s not alone. A 2012 article from Forbes highlights the “dark side” of the recycling industry. Among its points: “Emissions are [a] sticky subject for recycling. In the case of some materials — aluminum corrugated cardboard, newspaper, dimensional lumber, medium-density fiberboard — the net greenhouse gas emissions reductions enabled by recycling are actually greater than they would be if the waste source was simply reduced, according to the EPA.”

The Forbes article also underscores Ashkin’s chief argument, mentioning the “global market” for US recyclables and stating that, “recyclables collected in the United States [are] shipped to wherever demand is highest (often China).”

“A few years ago,” reports Forbes, “when demand for recycled products dropped, recyclers all over the country were warehousing stacks of cardboard, waiting for the prices to turn around.”

paper recycling

Most trees used for paper take decades to grow, but renewable trees take just six to ten years. From Greenpeace Finland.

Ashkin acknowledges that, “recycling does reduce the number of trees used to make paper products, as well as the amount of paper waste that ends up in landfills each year.” Still, he warns that, “the environmental costs of paper recycling pose a problem for…carbon sequestration,” the technologies that can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

So what does Ashkin propose? Rapidly renewable trees.

Say what?!

Rapidly renewable trees are specially bred to grow quickly and are raised as crops, meaning that instead of taking decades to grow, they are usually harvested after just six to ten years. These trees are reportedly appropriate for paper product manufacturing, though not for lumber.

If Ashkin is on to something, “watching trees grow” might not be as boring as you’d think!

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Category: Blog Landing Page, Paper, Recycling programs

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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