October 8, 2007

Paper recyclers struggle to cope with supply, contamination issues

Single-stream recycling (i.e. comingling paper, glass, metal and other recyclables in a single container) may simplify one of the three Rs for Ontario residents, but it is adding another woe to an already beleaguered paper industry. The results of a survey of paper recycling mills carried out by the Paper Recycling Association (PRA) and the Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) have served to reveal the difficulties being encountered.

PRA chair Doug Whynot, who is also executive vice-president of Minas Basin Pulp and Power, outlined the survey results at a Paper Recycling in Ontario seminar co-sponsored by PRA and PPEC. Just because paper is being diverted from landfill through Blue Box and other paper recycling programs does not necessarily mean it is being recycled, he pointed out.

Materials are not considered "recycled" until they are actually made into new products, he said, and Canada's paper recycling mills are experiencing increasing levels of fibre contaminated with glass, plastic, metal and other non-paper materials. Nearly 60% of capital investment by paper mills in 2006 went into equipment replacement, with 35% of that spent specifically for new cleaning and screening equipment.

The impacts of various contaminants on mill processing equipment are many and varied: adhesives and wire can cause plugging, resulting in reduced productivity, while glass and metal cause obstruction and equipment damage, breakdown and premature/excess wear, said Whynot.

On top of the damage, the costs of these reject materials are staggering: in 2006, downtime and repairs cost newsprint mills some $200,000 apiece, plus $536,000 each to landfill about 9,000 tonnes of reject materials. The costs to containerboard mills ranged from $60,000 to $250,000 per mill for downtime and repairs, and from $167,000 to $1.2 million to landfill between 6,000 and 21,000 tonnes of reject residues.

The survey figures show that in 2006, Canadian mills converted 4.8 million tonnes of recovered paper into new paper products, with newsprint (ONP) and corrugated containers (OCC) making up over 78% of this total. Supply remains a continuing challenge for these mills, as only 2.8 million tonnes (59%) of the total recovered paper came from Canadian sources; the rest was imported from the U.S.

Nevertheless, the recovery rate in Canada is steadily improving, Whynot noted, having risen from 20% in 1980 to nearly 49% in 2006. Recovery rates are still much better elsewhere, though, ranging from 52% in the U.S. to 64% in the European Union and 75% in Korea.

Along with fibre contamination, inadequate supply, energy costs, the rising Canadian dollar and low-cost competition overseas, there is a serious data gap relating to actual quantities of paper being recovered and recycled, noted PPEC executive director John Mullinder.

Statistics Canada figures for 2004 indicate a total of nearly 1.23 million tonnes of paper diverted in Ontario (including ONP, OCC and mixed paper from residential and industrial, commercial and institutional (IC&I) sources). However, said Mullinder, these figures don't capture the recycling tonnages sent directly from generators to recyclers, nor do they track large volumes of paper re-used on-site or supplied as feedstock to the paper industry.

At the same time, he continued, figures from Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO) and Stewardship Ontario indicate that the IC&I sector diverted just over 612,000 tonnes of ONP, OCC and mixed paper. Clearly, he said, there is a huge leakage in data, with many statistics under-reported and significant sources of recyclable paper overlooked. PPEC calculates that there are over 246,000 tonnes of paper "missing" from the provincial statistics.

Better data are needed, especially relating to quantities of paper recovered and recycled from the IC&I sector. Ontario's paper recyclers are also concerned about the potential quantities of paper that are not being collected from large multi-unit residential buildings, and about the possible loss of quality recyclable paper to energy-from-waste facilities.

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