Waste Not
The State of Recycling:
What Does it Mean for Paper?

As the global recycling industry responds to political, financial and environmental factors, and as consumers become more aware of the sustainability issues facing society today — what should we be thinking about? I’ve put together my top three takeaways, especially as it relates to the paper market.

You’ve probably read about the various ripple effects of China’s 2018 decision to restrict the types of recyclables it purchases from the US and charge a tariff on the cardboard, scrap plastic and fiber packaging it takes from us. As a result, the US public has been growing increasingly aware of the importance of improving and streamlining our recycling processes — especially when it comes to paper. Amidst burgeoning e-commerce trends, it comes as no surprise that we are seeing a renewed focus on paper and fiber recycling. After all, it’s one of the most recycled products.

This is an important topic every day, but especially on Earth Day. As the global recycling industry responds to political, financial and environmental factors, and as consumers become more aware of the sustainability issues facing society today — what should we be thinking about? I’ve put together my top three takeaways, especially as it relates to the paper market.

Today’s consumer cares more about recycling

As a society, we’re much more mindful of our impact on the environment than in the past, but the average US consumer still produces over four pounds of trash each day, according to the most recent estimates from the EPA.

Fortunately, China’s restrictions also resulted in increased awareness around what happens to paper after it’s thrown in the recycling bin, and North American views toward recycling are changing rapidly. That’s why many consumers are looking at US recycling systems with a more critical eye — highlighting the need for process innovation to recover more quality materials and prevent these from entering a landfill.

Achieving much-needed visibility into our land-use and forestry practices

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In line with a circular economy model, consumers are now demanding products that are renewable and that include post-consumer recycled materials, to minimize their long-term environmental impact. A circular economy is different because it takes into account products’ end of life, rather than focusing on simply being “recyclable.” This approach aims to recover products that have served their purpose for end users and turn them into new products that are sold on the market and recycled again.

Recycling is a business opportunity

There’s a larger expectation for businesses to respond to this demand: Research shows that 63 percent of US consumers are hopeful businesses will take the lead to drive social and environmental change moving forward, in the absence of government regulation. This is also a critical, largely untapped business opportunity, as research shows that a circular economy could unlock $4.5 trillion of economic growth by 2030. For example, we have seen:

  • Renewed optimism + investments: Businesses such as Waste Management, the largest hauler and MRF operator in North America, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on projects related to US paper recycling, underscoring the renewed optimism businesses have for product recovery.

  • Improved product design: We are seeing a product design shift, with a new focus on using post-consumer, recycled material and transforming the product end-of-life concept by optimizing supply chains to eliminate waste. Large brands including Unilever and McDonald’s are committing to increasing the amount of recycled content they use.

  • A closer look at the supply chain: Companies are looking deeper at their supply chains and identifying where they can adjust to make a real impact. One approach is quantifying the environmental impact of these purchase decisions, and we have seen recycled paper really serve as a gateway to sustainability for businesses.

Partnership will drive innovation

It’s clear there’s an urgent need for innovation and collaboration in the supply chain. According to Harvard Business Review, learning to work with others is pivotal in any sustainable supply chain, because “the system is too complicated for one person to grasp. It crosses too many boundaries, both internal and external.” Rolland prioritizes partnership by working with Green Champions — likeminded, purpose-driven businesses — to measure and reduce their environmental impact. We are also proud to partner with a local landfill to recover biogas, which has accounted for 93 percent of the mill’s thermal energy needs.

While policy changes have thrown markets through a loop, they have placed a renewed focus on recycling and opened new opportunities for businesses to partner together to close the loop. By focusing on product end of life, we can truly be sustainable and maximize value chains, by not only feeding recycled materials into production, but also by recovering by-products and side streams of manufacturing for reuse.

Of course, we try to make every day Earth Day at Rolland, but it’s important to use these holidays to start conversations that can serve as catalysts for meaningful change. Today and every day, purpose-driven brands should reflect on how their manufacturing processes affect the environment and around how they can create opportunities for stronger recycling in the future.

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