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Recycling Programs Essential to Maintain Supply of Essential Products

July 7, 2020

Today's guest blog is by Brian Hawkinson, Executive Director, Recovered Fiber, American Forest & Paper Association.

Over the last decade, the U.S. paper industry has achieved a consistently high recycling rate, meeting or exceeding 63 percent since 2009—a rate that’s nearly doubled since 1990, when the industry first set a paper recycling goal. Recently, AF&PA announced that the 2019 paper recycling rate was 66.2 percent. The rate represents a slight decrease from the 2018 rate, 68.1 percent, largely due to a reduction in U.S. recovered paper exports to China, but is still an increase from the 2017 recycling rate of 65.9 percent. The recycling rate for old corrugated containers (OCC) was 92.0 percent in 2019 and the three-year average OCC recycling rate is 92.3 percent.

Recovered fiber is essential to produce paper and packaging products. In 2019, more than 31 million tons of recovered fiber was consumed by U.S. paper and paperboard manufacturers. Nationwide, more than a third of the paper industry’s total fiber requirements are met using recovered material.

For some products, the share of recovered fiber used in manufacturing is much higher. For example, the manufacturing of both tissue products and corrugated packaging—the boxes used to ship produce and packaged goods to grocery store—uses a significant percentage of recovered fiber. Moreover, recovered fiber can be used multiple times – in fact, recycled paper and packaging can be used at least seven times in the manufacturing process to make new products.

Paper recovery is a success story because it is voluntary and market-driven. As a true market-based commodity, recovered paper is subject to natural ebbs and flows in the marketplace. But the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerability in the supply of recovered fiber—and for recycling in general.

Among the many impacts caused by COVID-19, AF&PA has seen a decline in the volume of recovered fiber from institutional, commercial and industrial facilities, such as schools, hotels and factories, many of which are experiencing reduced operations or are shut down.

Recovery rates across collection streams vary, and often the recovery rate is lower in residential recycling streams than in commercial streams. As states have adopted social distancing practices and Americans are sheltering in their homes, the overall volume of recycled paper and packaging has decreased. Additionally, some municipalities and communities have suspended residential curbside recycling collection or diverted collected recycled materials to landfills as a way of dealing with COVID-related labor shortages and strapped budgets.

It is important that recycling programs continue for the benefit of the environment as well as the circular economy.  This is why AF&PA worked alongside other industry partners and the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that recycling was designated as an essential service. Achieving that designation enabled community and private sector recycling programs to feed needed recovered fiber into the supply stream so paper and paperboard mills could continue to operate.

Approximately 80 percent of all U.S. paper mills use some recovered fiber to make everything from paper-based packaging to tissue products to office paper and newspaper. Without a stable and consistent supply of recycled material, manufacturers must source more virgin fiber or potentially decrease production. Recycling also helps to keep paper out of landfills. In 2019, more than twice as much paper was recycled than was sent to landfills—saving 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space for every ton of paper recovered. Recycling programs are critical to environmental stewardship and sustainability, and to keeping domestic paper and paperboard mills operating.  AF&PA is conducting outreach to municipalities to emphasize the importance of recycling and the role it plays in the supply chain. We have urged community leaders to protect worker safety by following CDC guidance and reinstate residential recycling programs as soon as is safely possible.

It is also important to remind consumers how to recycle at home and encourage good habits—AF&PA’s is a great resource. You can also learn more about how AF&PA is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic at

Graph of paper recovery for recycling

Figure 1. The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) announced 66.2 percent of paper consumed in the United States was recovered for recycling in 2019.

Disclaimer: Guest blogs represent the opinion of the writers and may not reflect the policy or position of the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc.

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