As Momentum Against Plastic Grows, Paper Recyclers Rise to Meet New Challenges
Words by Tina Casey
The movement against single-use plastics could pose a new challenge for paper recyclers. As consumers shift to paper items, recyclers face the prospect of managing a new flood of paper cups, cartons and other items made with new coatings that may not be fully compatible with their operations. The sustainable fiber and paper company Sustana illustrates how the industry is communicating with manufacturers to help ensure that plastic bans don’t create new problems when solving old ones.
Plastic bans, paper recycling and the COVID-19 pandemic
Among the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is an increase in the use of disposable plastic. Much of this waste is directly related to medical use, but some of the shift has been linked to changes in everyday habits, such as ordering takeout food instead of dining at restaurants.
At the beginning of the pandemic, plastic stakeholders also touted plastic shopping bags as a more effective barrier against the virus than paper, a claim that has not been backed by evidence. Nevertheless, some jurisdictions reversed or delayed plans to ban single-use plastic bags and other items.
Since then, the movement against single-use plastic items has regained momentum. As the trend continues to gather steam, paper products will dominate a larger share of the single-use field. That is apparently the preferred result for a growing number of consumers, who view recyclable paper products as a more environmentally-friendly solution than plastics.
That is good news for manufacturers of single-use paper products. However, it could spell trouble for paper recyclers, as manufacturers create new coatings that moisture-proof paper cups, cartons and other items.
“When there is a strong push to get rid of plastics, we have to be thoughtful that the solution we identify during the product design stage is not worse than the problem we’re trying to solve,” said Jim Schneider, Sustana Fiber’s VP of operations. “That’s why we work closely with our partners and clients from start to finish to develop an effective solution.”
Paper recyclers evolve to meet new challenges
On the bright side, paper recycling is an innovation-based industry. Companies with a long history of experience in the field are primed to respond to shifts in the incoming stream of recyclables.
Steven Minor, fiber procurement manager for Sustana Fiber, has been in the business for 27 years and seen many changes in paper recycling technology and in the stream of inputs. “Technology is huge, whether it’s different types of screening technology or chemistry technology,” Minor told TriplePundit. “From a sorting perspective, the technology is also changing on that side. Robotic sorting is quicker and more efficient.”
Innovation also continues to be a leading element as brands look to create new packaging, regardless of the economic disruption fostered by the COVID-19 crisis. That keeps paper recyclers on their toes.
One of Sustana’s external suppliers is Chicago-based Mid America Paper Recycling. The company’s CEO, Don Gaines, notes that the pandemic has not slowed down the need for brands to ensure the recyclability of their products.
“There’s a huge variability, and it’s constantly changing on the inbound side,” he explained. “The scrap generation is constantly changing, because people are constantly thinking of new ways to add pizazz to their products with packaging.”
Paper recycling and the human factor
With more plastic bans looming on the horizon, the need to educate both consumers and package designers about paper recycling is growing.
Sustana Fiber already has a head start, partly due to its technology for recycling cartons. The company has worked with industry stakeholders to help make carton recycling available in more jurisdictions and to help ensure that residents know they can recycle their cartons. Still, there is a lot of catching up to do, as recycling rates in the U.S. continue to lag behind the European Union and other advanced economies.
Another area of concern is misinformation. For example, in 2018 Sustana partnered with Starbucks to demonstrate that the company’s paper cups could be recycled cost-effectively. The trial deployed a stockpile of old paper cups that Starbucks had on hand, and it was a success. Unfortunately, rumors about non-recyclable Starbucks cups continue to persist, and although recycling the cups is feasible, they may not be accepted in all municipal recycling systems. That makes it all the more difficult to get more consumers to recycle their used cups.
Keeping the lines of communication open
The non-recyclable rumor apparently persists because of the polyethylene lining used in standard paper cups, but that is not an issue for Sustana, Schneider explained. “The engineering for recyclability becomes a very important part of the [package design] process,” he told TriplePundit. “One of the easiest things we can do is separate paper from polyethylene. They separate rather easily in our process.”
Keeping the lines of communication open can also help to ensure that paper recyclers are ready to handle new packaging materials before they hit the market, Schneider added, using the example of new coatings on paper products. “I emphasize that to brand owners and manufacturers: When and if they do create new barrier coatings, they can give us some to test,” he said. “In general the communication has been positive, and the alternative coatings we’ve seen so far have not caused any issues.”
Decades worth of experience and innovation have put fiber and paper recyclers like Sustana in a position to collaborate with brands on new, more sustainable paper packaging for the U.S. market. However, with American culture rooted in individualism, the real challenge will be ensuring everyone puts recyclable items in the recycling bin, even when it’s not convenient.
This article series is sponsored by Sustana and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image courtesy of Sustana