Americans are recycling more paper than ever

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Courtesy of Shred-Tech Corp.

Americans are recycling paper at an all-time high, recapturing more than 300 pounds per person each year. That's about half the paper produced in the United States.

In addition to improvements in the tactics of waste paper collection, recycling is gaining from China's suddenly ravenous appetite for U.S. scrap paper. Its hunger for recycled paper is fueled by its own shortage of wood pulp and a mushrooming need for boxes in which to ship its exports.

What's keeping U.S. and Chinese papermakers stocked with scrap is Americans' eagerness to recycle. Curbside collection, for instance, is up. So is corrugated cardboard collection, especially by grocery and department stores, who make money on it.

To bolster recycled-paper supplies to U.S. mills, the American Forest & Paper Association, which has long pushed recycling, aims to recover 55 percent of the paper produced nationwide by 2012. That's far below the rate in Germany and Finland, which recover nearly 75 percent. But it's a big step up for the United States, which recovered only a third of its paper as recently as 1990, according to the trade group.

'It's the mindset now,' said Rod Park, head of the Portland (Ore.) Metro Council's Solid Waste Advisory Committee. The eco-sensitized Portland area recovered almost 550 pounds of paper per person last year, thanks to a policy of charging for garbage pickups but not recycling. By maximizing recycling, homeowners can save $73 to $170 a year on garbage bills. Targeted pitches to property managers of office and apartment buildings -- and attractive scrap prices -- helped, too.

The demand for scrap in China, so deforested that it produces little of its own pulp, is growing about 50 percent a year, according to the paper industry. To meet that demand, U.S. collection agents for China's mills offer higher prices than many American papermakers, market analysts report.

Because shipping costs relatively little -- $10 to $15 a ton on scrap paper that costs around $100 a ton -- China's surging demand is turning even East Coast cities such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Savannah, Ga., Baltimore and Philadelphia into paper-export ports to Asia. Los Angeles leads, followed by New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

Much U.S. scrap paper ends up in the massive new Nine Dragons recycled paper mill in Dongguan, China, north of Hong Kong. It's the world's largest and unique in its ability to turn low-quality mixed papers into respectable box and packaging material.

Another factor in China's favor: Its workers are paid about $3.40 a day to sort mixed paper manually. American workers are paid at least the $5.15 an hour federal minimum wage. China's low wages have helped many U.S. communities to collect recyclables with little or no sorting.

While strong offshore demand helps keep supplies up and prices in the $80- to $120-a-ton range, some environmentalists worry that U.S. mills are getting priced out of recycled paper.

'I don't object to exporting some of our recovered paper overseas,' said Susan Kinsella, executive director of Conservatree, a San Francisco-based forest conservation and paper recycling group. 'At the same time, I think it's important to continue to support our own mills, too.'

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