When I was growing up, our swim team collected newspapers. We loaded our bundles onto a truck once a week and one of our parents drove us 25 miles north of Albuquerque to a recycling facility where they paid us $.50 a bundle. As kids, we marveled at this cool way to make money on garbage. That was over 4 decades ago!
Paper recycling has now become a household activity. In Brooklyn, we separate paper from the rest of our household waste. We put it in clear plastic bags for curbside pick up once a week. Our trusted NYSD delivers it to Material Reclamation Centers for sorting and bundling. It is then sold to paper recycling centers who pulp it, de-ink it and turn it into more paper related products.
So! I was really surprised to learn that paper’s contribution to our landfills has been holding steady at 40% since the 1970’s! What happened to the paperless computer age? Apparently, the economics of paper recycling gets bogged down when we can’t consistently close the loop for “post consumer” recycled paper products getting bought again by the consumer, or more simply put: supply vs demand. In addition, technology is making it possible for every household with a computer and a printer to fancy themselves a publisher; able to happily generate massive volumes of self printing with ease.
When 365 New York Times get sealed into a landfill, they are the equivalent in volume to 18,660 aluminum cans and 14,969 Big Mac styrofoam clamshells, so it is even more shocking news that they don’t biodegrade!! Biodegradation is the process in which insects, worms, fungi and microscopic bacteria break down a natural material and recycle its nutrients back into the soil. Paper easily biodegrades in compost piles. However, in a densely packed and sealed landfill it can’t get the moisture or oxygen necessary to start the decomposition process where clostridia or related bacteria produce enzymes called cellulases that break the cellulose down into smaller molecules or sugars. These sugars get fermented by acetogenic bacterias and produce organic acetic acid. Then other bacterias known as methanogens convert the acetic acid into methane. Since landfills produce tons of methane, why isn’t it a byproduct of biodegrading paper? The University of Arizona’s, now famous, The Garbage Project, which has been analyzing our garbage since 1973, discovered that only one of their encounters with the prized and sought after grey slime was from biodegradation. This occurred while they were excavating at Fresh Kills; a landfill in New York City. Much more on that in future blogs! (they actually found a newspaper they could identify from 1949) You can read more about this valuable work in Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy
So! Decades after we became a society conscious of waste paper’s value and the natural resources required to produce the virgin product, we are discarding more waste paper than ever and we are challenged to make reuse an economically consistent business model!
Ways You Can Help
- Look for and buy Post Consumer Recycled paper products and packaging. You can tell by the grey color of the backside.
- Carefully consider how products are packaged when purchasing any consumer item.
- Recycle all newspapers, catalogs and magazines.
- Use the back side of office paper when printing hard copies of non important documents.
- Keep recyclable paper clear of oils, glues, food or toxins that will degrade the quality the future paper.
- Shred personal documents and recycle them. More on this in future blogs!
- Bring reusable containers to your coffee house. Starbucks will happily fill your coffee container!
- Single use shopping bags are largely unnecessary. Keep a backup of multi use bags handy for shopping trips.
- Comments are welcome on this blog! How have you discovered ways to refuse, reuse, recycle and reduce paper?
- Note the following list for paper items that are and are not accepted by NYSD for recycling.
- Newspapers, magazines, catalogs ACCEPTED
- White and colored paper (lined, copier, computer, staples OK) ACCEPTED
- Mail and envelopes (any color, window envelopes OK) ACCEPTED
- Paper bags ACCEPTED
- Wrapping paper ACCEPTED
- Soft-cover books, telephone books (paperbacks, comics, etc.; no spiral bindings) ACCEPTED
- Cardboard egg cartons and trays ACCEPTED
- Smooth cardboard (food and shoes boxes, tubes, file folders, cardboard from product packaging0 ACCEPTED
- Corrugated cardboard boxes (flattened and tied) ACCEPTED
- Hardcover books NOT ACCEPTED
- Napkins, paper towels, or tissues NOT ACCEPTED
- Soiled paper cups or plates NOT ACCEPTED
- Paper soiled with food or liquid NOT ACCEPTED
- Paper with a lot of tape and glue NOT ACCEPTED
- Plastic- or wax-coated paper (candy wrappers, take-out containers, etc.)NOT ACCEPTED
- Photographic paper NOT ACCEPTED
Until next week,