Working Partner Update: Conservatree, Inc.

As a part of the Zero Waste Symposium in San Diego in early February, an expert on paper recycling delivered an excellent speech on the state of paper recycling across the world.

Susan Kinsella, principal of Conservatree, based in San Francisco, has been a long time working partner with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. She is among the top experts on the paper manufacturing industry and related  recycling issues. Kinsella is also the founder of the Environmental Paper Network, EPN, a global network of over 150 collaborating organizations from China, Russia, Tasmania, South America and Africa, as well as Europe and North America. EPN is about to issue a major report on international developments in the paper industry.

Follow Conservatree at and EPN at

Susan gave a speech at the Zero Waste Symposium, San Diego, CA on February 6. It provides a timely review of the historic trends in US paper industry, declining; trends in Asia’s paper industry, expanding; impacts of single stream and China markets, challenging but not hopeless; recycled content in high grade paper manufacturing, remarkably low at 6%.

“World paper production has more than tripled since 1970. At THAT time, 85% of paper was made in the US, Canada, Western Europe and Japan, and most of the paper was used in these locations, as well. The rest of the world didn’t have much paper.”

How times have changed!


by Susan Kinsella, Conservatree

February 6, 2018

I want to start with a global view of recycling, and paper recycling in particular.

About 15 years ago, I founded the Environmental Paper Network to bring together all the North American environmental groups that had anything to do with environmental paper issues, such as forestry, agriculture, clean production, and of course recycling.

Early on, we put out a report on the environmental status of the paper industry, in order to set and then track indicators to follow how well the industry was doing. And we’ve put out updates every few years since then.

Now the Environmental Paper Network is global, with about 150 environmental organizations worldwide collaborating, including in places like China, Russia, Tasmania, South America and Africa, as well as Europe and North America. So, for the first time our State of the Industry report that we are just about to publish will be global. I wrote the chapter on recycling so I thought you’d be the perfect audience for its world premiere.

To set the stage, I can tell you that world paper production has more than tripled since 1970. At that time, 85% of paper was made in the US, Canada, Western Europe and Japan, and most of the paper was used in these locations, as well. The rest of the world didn’t have much paper.

Today, in contrast, many more countries around the world are building up new paper industries. For example, Asia has moved up to producing nearly half the world’s pulp and paper, and China has taken over as the leading paper producer, providing more than 25% of global paper production. The US, long the global leader in papermaking, moved to second place in 2009.

In fact, in the 1990s, people in the US paper industry told me frequently, “We’re just driving our mills into the ground and then we’re out of here. We’re moving to Asia and South America.” And soon I’d hear them announcing joint ventures in China or Brazil. So it’s not surprising that the paper industry in the US and Canada is in decline, but it would be a mistake to think that that represents the paper industry overall.

In fact, the paper industry is booming in Asia, especially China, with India starting a build-up and mills starting up in many other places, as well, including Africa and the Middle East. In fact, industry projections estimate that paper production will increase another 20% within less than 15 years.

So about now you might be asking, “Okay, but what does this have to do with recycling?”

Many of these countries, especially China and India, have huge populations that have never had much paper before. And while computers and cellphones are rapidly changing how people use paper, these new paper users are still creating a rapidly increasing demand for papers such as newsprint, packaging, and tissue products, and their countries are also building mills to make printing and copy papers.

I’m of two minds about this. On one hand, I think it’s great that people in other parts of the world are gaining more access to the benefits of paper. Paper improves literacy, communication, sanitation, and a whole lot of other quality of life issues.

At the same time, paper manufacturing has long been among the most environmentally destructive industries, devastating resources, water and energy sources, and raw materials to make chemicals and other necessary substances. So how can we keep ramping up paper production without blowing out the planet?

I think the key to being able to benefit far more of the world’s population while protecting environmental quality is to rapidly reduce the paper production footprint. And I think the fastest and most comprehensive way to do that is through recycled paper.

After all, recycled paper not only reduces demand on forests – it takes 4 tons of trees to make 1 ton of 100% virgin copy paper. But it takes no trees to make 1 ton of 100% recycled copy paper.

That same recycled paper also reduces energy use by 40%, greenhouse gases by more than 55%, hazardous air pollutants by nearly 30%, and solid waste by 82%.

And of course, addressing solid waste is where you come in. There are new paper mills being built all over the world and, thankfully, quite a few of them are recycling mills.

Newsprint is disappearing here in North America, but it is surging in other parts of the world where it is becoming an inexpensive and fairly resource-efficient means of communication. And worldwide, newsprint is averaging 68% recycled content.

Packaging such as different types of boxes and packaging papers accounts for nearly 60% of world paper production and more than half of its fiber content is recycled paper.

Tissue products average more than 30% recycled content.

But the one that has always been of great concern to me is printing and copy paper. Even in the US, where we have had a concerted effort to push buying recycled, its overall fiber usage is only about 6% recycled. That means that more than 90% of the paper fiber in copy and printing paper in the US is still virgin wood fiber, not recycled. Paper industry people say, “Oh, that doesn’t matter, printing and copy paper use is declining rapidly in the US anyway.”

It has dropped some here, but it’s still a significant amount of production. And worldwide, it still makes up one-quarter of all paper production, yet it averages only 8% recycled.

But there are a couple more things about printing and copy papers that I find especially dismaying:

It is made in the most destructive paper production process of all, and

While a large number of the new mills around the world that are making newsprint, packaging and tissue are using at least some recycled content, almost all the new mills making printing papers and copy papers worldwide are using no recycled content at all. Even in China, which uses so much recycled fiber in their newsprint and packaging mills, papermakers are using almost no recycled content in their printing and writing paper mills. Yet it’s the most destructive papermaking process.

Why aren’t they using recycled fiber in printing and writing papers? I don’t entirely know, but I have my suspicions. This is the grade of paper that they use to print all the books and calendars and school materials that US businesses send over to China or South America for high quality but cheaper printing and then they ship them back to sell to us. I would think that those countries would be looking at what the businesses are used to using for printing their products at home … and what they would see is that the mills here are using very little recycled. So they might figure that that’s what they need to do to be competitive.

A long time ago, I gave a speech in which I told the audience, “If you’re not buying recycled products, you’re not recycling.” Recycling doesn’t happen until the materials you collect get to a manufacturer and actually get used, and that’s what pulls the collected materials through the system.

At the time, that was, surprisingly, a new concept for people and it became really popular, with lots of panels on “Market Development” at all the recycling conferences. But within a year or two I started realizing that the meaning of “market development” had changed. Now it no longer meant buying recycled products in order to create market demand. Instead, it had morphed into meaning, “Where am I going to be able to sell the materials I collect?” But by taking the focus off of recycled products, it took the engine out of driving the markets for the collected materials.

But then China roared in and created enormous demand for our recovered materials, which seemed to save the day. Still, in every speech I would tell people, “Don’t count on this to go on forever. As their mills make paper more and more available to their own people, they’re going to be really great at collecting it from them, as well. This is temporary, so plan on that.” But I don’t think anyone did.

This has happened to us before. In the 1970s, the Japanese offered to buy scrap steel from the US. We thought that was great because we thought it was all junk. But Japan took it and invented a new form of steel-making furnace, then roared back and destroyed much of our steel industry. Let’s not make that mistake again.

China has been increasing quality requirements for imported wastepaper as well as recovered plastics and other materials for the past several years. Now, with their National Sword policy, they have slammed the door hard to our low-quality recovered materials, and especially to bales of mixed wastepaper.

Meanwhile, we have recycling mills here in the US that are struggling to use recovered materials from our single stream programs. We never had a lot of paper mills on the West Coast because they require a lot of water, but of the recycling mills we did have, most of them have closed and many of those were done in at least in part by poorly sorted wastepaper. I co-wrote the Single Stream Recycling Best Practices Manual in 2007 because at the time anyone who questioned single stream was just shut out. So we said, “Okay, in order to make it really work for manufacturers – where the actual recycling takes place – all the money that you just saved on collection now has to be put into sorting.” As we know, that didn’t happen. But it is what China is insisting on now, and what would make our collected materials more saleable and usable for domestic mills, as well.

Many US recycling mills have built sorting belts into the beginning of their recycled pulping systems because the materials they’re getting – supposedly already sorted – are too contaminated to use directly. By “contaminated,” I mean are they the right mix of recovered papers for that particular mill? A mill making copy paper can’t use corrugated or paperboard boxes or newsprint. Yet those are a big part of mixed waste bales. And they certainly can’t use plastic or glass to make paper, but those are still problematic parts of mixed waste bales as well.

In fact, what a recycling mill making copy paper does need is office paper. But much of that has been shipped out in mixed waste bales to China, where they don’t actually need it for the recycled newsprint and packaging that they’re making. Yet by shipping it out, we have created a shortage of the feedstock that our recycling mills here do need, and several of them have closed in part because they could not get the consistency and quality that they need.

I even just read an article a couple nights ago saying that several paper companies are using their windfall tax reductions from the recent Congressional tax bill not to hire more workers, as we were promised but, instead, to fund their cashing out and closing their mills as they move overseas. And some of the mills they named unfortunately are recycling mills.

Articles about the responses to China’s restrictive National Sword policy are talking about paper brokers finding new markets in countries like Vietnam and Korea and India, but those don’t yet have enough infrastructure to make up for losing the huge market in China. Eventually, the new mills worldwide will be markets for more recovered paper but, even then, I expect that they will replace it with their own collection capabilities not long after.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of recycling mills teetering right here at home that were crushed in the rush to ship everything to China. We need to revive and rebuild our US recycled paper industry and that would benefit all our local community collection programs as well.

As for domestic markets, the tissue mills, in particular, have been somewhat insulated against competition from other countries. Mainly because tissue is pretty bulky to ship, it tends to be a more localized product. There is some coming in from other countries, but the domestic picture for tissue is stronger than for other grades of paper. And, while tissue mills also need recovered office paper, they can usually handle a slightly wider range of paper grades, such as some newsprint in their products.

Also, tissue mills are the recycling mills most likely to be making renovation and expansion investments in the US. To be clear, I’m not referring to tissue converting companies – I know there are several in southern California that turn manufactured tissue rolls into finished products. Instead, I’m talking about the manufacturers of the original tissue paper. On the West Coast, there are some in Oregon, Washington and Arizona, and there are quite a few east of the Mississippi. Likewise, there are recycled high grade mills making printing and copy papers in Washington State and east of the Mississippi.

If collection programs can provide cleaner sorting, or collect office papers separately and bale them separate from curbside materials, that could help strengthen those types of recycling mills in the US and maybe we could get the average percentage of recycled fiber in printing and writing papers higher than 8%.

I want to also encourage cities to make a big push to get their local businesses more invested in buying recycled paper. I’ve found that even the leaders who win awards for their recycled purchasing have way more they could be doing, and most businesses are still not serious at all about buying recycled. But increasing recycled paper purchases will also increase the demand for collected materials.

We have to remember that recycling is a circular system. We’ve been trying to run the recycling system by letting every program and company look out only for their own interests, which has created a creaky, jolting kind of system that doesn’t operate smoothly. China has thrown a big wrench into the system with their National Sword policy, although I think they are absolutely in the right to insist they don’t want to take trash anymore, and they will only take quality.

The problem is that those kinds of changes can’t be made quickly, so I think it’s going to be disruptive for some time. However, I hope that it will end up providing the push we need to re-evaluate the whole recycling system and come up with the rules and adjustments needed to make it all work much more smoothly worldwide – for collectors, manufacturers and purchasers. I think an improved Zero Waste recycling system is the model for what sustainable businesses should look like in the 21st century.

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Neil Seldman

Neil Seldman, Ph.D, directs the Waste to Wealth Initiative. He specializes in helping cities and businesses recover increasing amounts of materials from the waste stream and add value to the local economy through new processing and manufacturing facilities. He is a co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.