Pandemic fuels need for recycled paper and cardboard

November 20, 2020   |   Blog

As Americans hunker down amid a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, paper mills are revving back online to help fill the need for more recycled paper and cardboard. 

The pandemic has Americans ordering takeout, working from home, and shopping online. This has caused demand for paper and cardboard products — like pizza boxes, shipping packages, and printing paper — to skyrocket. To meet the demand, paper mills are turning back to recycled paper. And this change could not have come at a better time for the U.S. recycling industry. 

The market for mixed paper scrap in the United States almost collapsed after China — which had been buying up two-thirds of the mixed paper scrap from the U.S. — halted its imports of mixed paper and some other recycled items in 2018. When China was still in the market, costs were driven up and U.S. companies opted not to buy mixed paper scrap for their production lines. After China left the market, U.S. companies were slow to turn to recycled scrap and the market bottomed out with scrap selling practically for free..

Jump forward to November and prices for mixed paper have risen to $30 a ton, according to data from Fastmarkets RISI Inc. Kevin Hudson, vice president of forestry and recycled fiber WestRock Co., an Atlanta-based recycling company, told the Wall Street Journal that demand for new paper and the steady flow of recycled boxes has reinvigorated the market for scrapped paper. 

“Those who are recycling are recycling more,” Hudson said. “You’re definitely seeing more old corrugated cardboard from residential programs since Covid.”

WestRock launched recycling campaigns in several areas working to encourage people to recycle more paper and cardboard to help them keep up with demand. One public awareness campaign they started encouraged consumers to recycle pizza boxes. They noted that their recycling center can process cardboard boxes, even if they have grease or cheese stuck inside. They want the three billion pizza boxes used in the U.S. each year to start landing in the recycling bin. 

Other companies have launched similar efforts. Georgia Pacific, the company behind Brawny paper towels and Quilted Northern toilet paper, spent $45 million to include more recycled paper scrap in their production. Waste Management, the largest trash collector in the U.S., reported a 7% increase in the volume of recycled materials collected when compared to this time last year. 

The positive trends in recycling should be celebrated because the current recycling rates in the U.S. are dismal. Almost all paper, aluminum, and types one and two plastic (PET and HDPE plastic that is used to make water bottles, milk jugs, and detergent bottles) are accepted in curbside recycling programs. Yet just 68 percent of paper, 35 percent of aluminum, 35 percent of HDPE plastics, and 29 percent of PET plastics are recycled each year in the U.S. 

Local governments must do what they can to ensure all their residents have easy access to recycling. Citizens must continue to do their part, as well. They should use their time stuck at home during the pandemic to make sure their cardboard boxes, plastic beverage bottles, and aluminum cans make their way into the recycling bin.