By the numbers: An AF&PA report shows the growth of paper recycling since 1991

Brian Taylor

The decade of the 1990s may be recalled by some as the decade everyone logged on to the Internet, but paper recyclers can remember it for another reason.

A compilation of statistics organized by the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), Washington, shows that the United States went from recycling 31.2 million tons of paper in 1991 to 47.3 million tons in 2000.

The increased tonnage was a reflection not only of more scrap paper being generated, but also of a growth in the recycling rate from 36.7 percent in 1991 to 46 percent in 2000.

PAPERLESS PIPE DREAM. Despite the best efforts of technology companies and an American public eager to adopt e-mail and Internet technology, printed materials abounded during the previous decade. Any examination of the paper recycling industry must start with the potential supply of scrap paper–or just how much paper is being produced annually by mills in the United States.

Through most of the 1990s, that amount escalated, starting from a base of 85 million tons of paper used by American businesses in 1991 for packaging, newsprint and magazine stock and as writing and office paper. By 1999, that number rose to 105.3 million tons. (The total fell off for the next several years as the economy slowed, but has shown an increasing trend again starting with 2002.)

As the amount of paper circulating through American workplaces and households rose, so did the collection of scrap paper by recyclers. As noted earlier, both recovered tonnage totals and the percentage of paper recovered rose throughout the decade, almost without interruption.

The ratio of paper recycled vs. paper landfilled reversed itself in the 1990s. In 1991, nearly 6 million more tons of paper was landfilled than was recycled. But by 2002, recycling had become far more common, as some 13.4 million more tons of paper was recycled compared to what was landfilled.

In the foreword to its “2003 Recovered Paper Statistical Highlights,” the AF&PA notes, “the incremental paper recovered now compared with 1990 would fill 220 football stadiums stacked to a height of 100 feet.”

PASSING GRADES. The AF&PA “Statistical Highlights” report also looks at where all the collected paper is going and which paper grades are gaining the most attention from recyclers.

Makers of containerboard and paperboard continue to absorb the most scrap paper, according to the AF&PA. By 1999, U.S. containerboard makers were consuming more than 15 million tons of scrap paper while their paperboard colleagues used nearly 8 million tons.

Tissue makers upped their use of scrap paper in the decade, moving from slightly more than 3 million tons in 1991 to more than 4 million tons by 2001. Newsprint makers in the United States similarly accepted more secondary fiber in the decade, zooming from 2.2 million tons consumed in 1991 to nearly 4 million by 1998.

The variety of paper mills consuming scrap paper helped increase the demand for most grades of scrap paper throughout the decade. The amount of OCC (old corrugated containers) collected climbed from 14 million tons in 1991 to more than 22 million toils by the end of the decade.

An increase in municipal recycling programs call probably take part of the credit for a steady climb in ONP (old newspapers) collected. Some 6.1 million tons of ONP was collected in 1991, but that amount enjoyed a 50 percent increase to about 9 million tons by 2000.

The recovery rate increase for ONP is as impressive as the tonnage increase, as the grade zoomed up from a 37.5 percent recovery rate in 1990 to a 71 percent rate in 2002. The ONP collected goes to a variety of consuming markets, including newsprint makers who receive about one-third of the material collected as of 2002. Nearly 23 percent of ONP collected was exported in 2002, while other fractions went to paperboard, tissue and writing paper mills.

The collection of scrap office paper grades from workplaces throughout the United States also enjoyed impressive leaps in collection in the 1990s, although collection of the grade began dropping off slightly early this decade. Nonetheless, the overall trend was encouraging, as recyclers collected some 4.5 million tons of office paper in 2000 compared to just 2.4 million tons in 1992.

The economic turmoil of 2001 hit the office grades a bit, as collection slumped from the 4.5 million tons collected in 2000 to 4.2 million in 2002, with the collection rate also dropping below 46 percent in 2002, after peaking at 47.6 percent in 2000.

The AF&PA sees increased collection of the grade as an area of interest for recyclers. “Less than half of office papers are currently recovered, leaving opportunity for future progress,” the organization notes.

The association cites the recycling growth rate of the 1990s as being encouraging. In 1990, the overall paper recycling rate in the United States stood at 33.5 percent, or about 233 pounds of paper per person recovered that year. In 2003, the recovery rate was 50.3 percent, representing 339 pounds of paper per person.

MORE TO COME. Even though the AF&PA can take pride in the successes of paper recycling in the past decade-and-a-half, the group has set its sights on further growth in recovered tonnage.

In late June of 2004, the organization announced that the next goal for recyclers and mills to aim for is a 55 percent recovery rate by 2012.

“Americans have done a great job of recycling paper, but we all need to do more,” AF&PA Recovered Fiber CEO Committee chairman Fred von Zuben of The Newark Group remarked at a press event held at the 2004 Paper Recycling Conference in Atlanta. Von Zuben and other AF&PA officers said the additional 5 percent recovered will be needed as feedstock for North American paper mills. “Greater recovery of these paper products will help ensure a steady, reliable supply of recovered paper for our country’s paper manufacturers,” said yon Zuben.

The AF&PA says it will work with the U.S. EPA and Keep America Beautiful to help educate and encourage Americans to recycle paper at their homes, offices, schools and other buildings. “The paper industry will continue to educate Americans about paper recycling and encourage its growth,” said AF&PA President and CEO W. Henson Moore at the press event.

In August, the AF&PA released three new brochures designed to increase paper recycling in schools, workplaces and communities interested in starting up or improving paper recycling programs.

The group says the brochures are part of its effort to reach 55 percent recovery rate. “AF&PA and its partners, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Keep America Beautiful and CarrAmerica, are working hard to educate the public on the very important role they play in paper recovery,” says Moore.

The AF&PA states that recovered paper is an important raw material for the U.S. paper industry, with more than 80 percent of all paper mills in the country now using it to make their products. Nearly 200 U.S. mills exclusively use recovered paper. Of the paper currently recovered in the United States, 95 percent is recycled into new paper products, and the balance is used in other applications, such as building materials. Some 37.7 percent of all the raw material used to make new paper comes from recovered paper, up from 26 percent in 1990.

But the group says greater collection of more high-quality paper grades is necessary to ensure the continued production of new recycled content paper products. As domestic and export demand for U.S. recovered paper continues to grow, domestic supply will be squeezed by an anticipated 50 percent surge in U.S. exports of recovered paper, primarily to China and other parts of Asia.

Those seeking copies of AF&PA’s school, workplace or community recycling guides can visit recycling or contact Gretchen Kornely at (202) 463-5156 or at

The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at

Paper and Paperboard Recovery in the U.S.

(short tons)

Tons Recovered Recovery Rate

1991 31.2 million 36.7%

1994 39.7 million 41.5%

1997 44.0 million 44.2%

2000 47.3 million 46.0%

2002 47.6 million 48.1%

Source: AF&PA

Paper Recycling vs. Landfilling in the U.S.

(short tons)

Paper Recovered Paper Landfilled

1991 31.2 million 37.0 million

1994 39.7 million 37.5 million

1997 44.0 million 36.5 million

2000 47.3 million 37.5 million

2002 47.6 million 34.2 million

Source: AF&PA

OCC Recycling in the U.S.

(short tons)

Consumed in U.S. Exported Recy. Rate

1991 11.2 million 2.7 million 56.5%

1994 15.0 million 3.2 million 63.7%

1997 19.6 million 2.6 million 71.7%

2000 19.7 million 2.7 million 72.3%

2002 19.6 million 3.5 million 73.9%

Source: AF&PA

ONP Recycling in the U.S.

(short tons)

Consumed in U.S. Exported Recy. Rate

1991 5.1 million 1.1 million 44.7%

1994 6.1 million 1.8 million 53.7%

1997 6.5 million 1.9 million 58.2%

2000 7.2 million 1.9 million 60.7%

2002 7.3 million 2.2 million 71.2%

Source: AF&PA


Paper boxes are by no means the only types of packages recycled in the United States as metal food and beverage cans, plastic containers and glass bottles and jars are also commonly recycled and accepted in most municipal recycling programs.

Recycling rates and volumes for some of these other materials also improved in the 1990s, and the value for some (especially aluminum beverage cans) can make the recycling loop very worthwhile.

But information presented by the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), Washington, in its “2003 Recovered Paper Statistical Highlights” report lays out the case that in volume terms, paper remains the most recyclable material.

“Paper and paperboard packaging accounted for more than 75 percent of all packaging material recovered in 2002,” the AF&PA notes, “making it the most recovered packaging material by far.” In 2002, some 22.2 million tons of paper packaging was recovered for recycling in the U.S., compared to 2.9 million tons of glass bottles and jars; 2.6 million tons of metal (aluminum and tinplated steel) cans; and 1.0 million tons of plastic packaging, according to figures compiled by Franklin Associates Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2004 G.I.E. Media, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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