Recovered Paper Quality: Will It Get Any Better?

Submitted by: Joan MacKenzie 03/13/2012

May 21, 2011

Moore, Bill

There is no doubt that recovered paper quality in North America has declined over the last 15 years. The key question for the paper recycling industry is will it get worse or is there a chance it will improve?    

As the industry pushes toward higher recovery rates in all the major recovered paper grades, quality is being affected in a variety of ways:

  • The "next ton" source is almost always from a smaller source and usually more contaminated.    
  • To collect from smaller sources--e.g., house-holds and small businesses--the industry is moving toward more efficient collection systems, which by their nature are more mixed (both mixed paper fibers and    collected together with non-paper materials).    
  • Much of the "pure grades" of recovered paper are highly recovered, and only mixtures of different fibers are the majority of what remains unrecovered, i.e. mixed paper.   

Market prices may rise and fall, but the seasoned suppliers of recovered paper know that producing high quality material is always in their best interest. This is the counterbalance to the trend toward more difficult-to-collect and lower-quality materials. Recovered paper is no longer a trivial raw material for the paper industry. Therefore it's quality is more important than ever. At the end of the day, suppliers really have no choice but to produce the quality of paper that is usable by the mills.   

Gradual Trend   

As with collection, things are changing in the mills. There has been a gradual trend during the past 10 years of more sophisticated deinking, cleaning, and screening systems that are able to deal with lower-quality recovered paper. While more common in Europe and Japan, drum pulpers have now made their way into many North American deinking mills.    

But all of this costs money. In a financially strapped industry (as is the case in many sectors of the North American paper and board industry), the need to invest sizable amounts of capital in fiber processing can be prohibitive for many mills. In addition to the capital, there are sizable operating issues as well. Many good fibers are thrown away when contaminants are removed via cleaning and screening. While a contaminant level of 2 percent to 3 percent may seem trivial to some, when a mill buys more than 500 tons per day of recovered paper the yearly loss can total more than $700,000.    

The most controversial issue that has emerged in the last few years is the use of "single-stream" residential curbside recycling. The state of the art in the early- to mid-1990s for residential curbside collection was a "dual-stream" program. In this approach the recycling trucks have at least two compartments--one for fibers and the other for containers (some programs had three or even four or more compartments). To improve collection costs and get more people to participate, the trend in the last five years is to combine the paper streams with containers in a single compartment on a truck. Coincident with this is the addition of other paper grades such as OCC, boxboard, magazines, and office papers, which again limits the ability to produce a high-quality ONP.  

Single-stream collection has been driven by tightened local government budgets and the need to improve the cost efficiency of residential curbside recycling programs. One positive move is a limited movement away from the collection of glass in these single-stream programs because of the significant impact of this contaminant on the ONP collected.    

A good example of what has been happening with quality can be seen in the following #8 ONP (deinking grade) data courtesy of AbitibiBowater (from Ontario supply to the company's Thorold mill):   

  • In 1994 1997, the average #8 ONP contained more than 90 percent newsprint. By the 2002-2005 timeframe this had fallen to the 70 percent to 75 percent level. In 2010 it was 68 percent newsprint.    
  • The prohibitive content (non-paper material), which averaged about 1 percent from 2002-2007, grew to more than 2 percent in 2008-2010.    

The export market as a percent of the North American supply of recovered paper has been growing steadily for more than 10 years now. China has become a very large buyer of recovered paper from the U.S. and seems to be better able to handle the quality issues that give domestic mills fits. One must put the Chinese recovered paper quality acceptance level in the context of the world's fiber supply. Even with supply quality problems, North American-based recovered fiber is the best in the world (primarily because of the higher level of virgin fibers in our products). But even China's mills appear at the breaking point on the current quality coming from North America.   

Quality has always been and will continue to be an important issue for both suppliers and users of recovered paper. The challenges are growing as recovery and usage levels increase. The solutions lie in a comprehensive approach to the issue and must be shared by all links of the chain. These include:  

  • Better education of the generator;  
  • Improved sorting/processing at the paper stock/MRF operations; and   
  • Installation of more sophisticated cleaning, screening and deinking systems at the mill.