Fixing our Fibre Problem: Paper and Cardboard Does Not Belong in Landfill

Fixing our Fibre Problem: Paper and Cardboard Does Not Belong in Landfill

When conversations about waste come up, it’s very common for plastic to steal all the air time. However, zero waste is not just about plastic (which, after all, is only one waste stream among many). Zero waste is about being mindful of all the resources we use, and seeking to refuse and reduce our dependence on all throwaway and brand new products, regardless of the material these products and throwaways are made of.

And this is relevant because today, Auckland Council announced that the city’s kerbside collected paper and cardboard recycling will now be going to landfill because the paper mills in India where it was supposed to go for recycling have closed as a result of COVID-19.

This is a problem for a number of reasons, but one of the most pressing is that paper and cardboard produce large amounts of methane in the anaerobic landfill environment (i.e. no oxygen). It’s a little known fact that the methane production from paper and cardboard in landfill is actually much higher than from food waste. The bottom line is that we don’t want paper and cardboard going to landfill.

COVID-19 is only part of the story

Our collective obsession with plastic may have meant that the public did not see a paper or cardboard recycling crisis coming, but the thing is, in NZ we’ve had a problem with paper and cardboard (or ‘fibre’ as it’s often referred to in the industry) for some time. While COVID-19 may have pushed our paper and cardboard recycling problem to the brink, NZ was already well into a paper and cardboard recycling crisis.

NZ only has capacity to recycle 50% of the nation’s total paper and cardboard consumption. So 50% is sent offshore (mostly to Asia) for processing. This situation means that, even when all is good in the world, we expend huge amounts of energy and resources shipping so much paper and cardboard recycling offshore…

It also makes the viability of NZ’s recycling system vulnerable to international events affecting global recycling markets. Such events are not limited to COVID-19. For NZ, things started getting really bad a couple of years ago when China implemented its National Sword policy. This policy effectively closed China’s borders to the world’s recycling by placing maximum contamination rates on recycling imports that were so strict they operated as a de facto ban on import. These strict import controls were later replicated by other recyclate importing countries around Asia. While the media focused on the impact of all this on plastic recyclate, actually, these import controls also hit fibre pretty hard. For major centres like Auckland and Christchurch that have a glass-in, commingled (or as waste geeks like to say, co-mangled) kerbside recycling collection, achieving such low contamination rates for paper and cardboard is extremely difficult.

To see a full analysis of these issues, check out the National Resource Recovery Project – Situational Analysis Report prepared by Eunomia for the Ministry for the Environment in September 2018.

What does all this mean?

NZ’s paper and cardboard recycling crisis isn’t going away, even after the COVID-19 pandemic comes under control (whenever that may be). There are some long-term things we need to start doing, or at least be thinking about, at household, business, local govt and central govt level.

  1. We must take these things seriously and recognise that our waste woes go beyond plastic.
  2. We must start reducing the paper and cardboard coming into our homes. We recognise that during lockdown this is MUCH HARDER than usual, so do what you can, recognising that you will be able to do much more after the lockdown is lifted and more packaging-free shopping options return again. Find tips for how to reduce paper and cardboard during lockdown in this post.
  3. Compost the paper and cardboard that does come into your home. If you do not have a compost bin or worm farm, now is the time to consider setting one up.
  4. Post-lockdown, we urge businesses to talk to their suppliers about using more reusable packaging to ship supplies around (or at least take back cardboard boxes for reuse rather than having them be one-way commodities). We urge businesses to move away from giving out paper bags to customers and encourage use of reusables instead.
  5. Post-lockdown, we urge local govt to work to expand community compost networks and decentralised vermicomposting facilities, and support these community composters and vermicomposters to shred and compost/vermicompost some of the paper/cardboard NZ would otherwise send offshore or landfill. We have a desperate need to expand community compost and vermicompost sites anyway, given how much food and green waste goes to landfill in NZ. However, even the sites that exist already desperately need more carbon – some are even accepting single-use plant-based plastic-lined coffee cups, just so they can increase their carbon content. But paper and cardboard are carbon and now we’re landfilling it… Rather than perpetuating throwaway coffee cups (see the Takeaway Throwaways campaign) and putting compostable plastics in our soils, we reckon it makes sense to use paper and cardboard recycling for carbon content instead. Especially as this paper and cardboard would otherwise be going to landfill (or sent offshore if international processors re-open).
  6. Post-lockdown, we urge central and local govt to move away from commingled kerbside collections of recycling. There are still decent markets for clean fibre streams in ordinary, non-COVID19 circumstances. Ideally, even paper and cardboard would be collected separately from each other.
  7. We urge Central Govt to continue seriously considering expansion of our onshore processing capacity for fibre. We get that that is a massive and long-term investment, but we see two options at this point. Either we drastically reduce our paper/cardboard consumption and drastically increase the community compost networks and their capacity to take paper and cardboard for carbon, OR we set up more on-shore processing. Sending this stuff to landfill is simply not a long-term option in this day and age.

We know that now is not the time to put a lot of the above into practice because we have a fully blown health emergency on our hands. However, we reiterate that NZ has been stumbling into a paper and cardboard recycling crisis for some time, much before anyone had even heard of COVID-19. As we rebuild from the rubble post-lockdown, transforming our approach to resources and moving away from the linear economy must be prioritised. Yes, we can’t fix everything right now, but let’s do what we can in the meantime, while starting to plan for the rest so that we’re ready once the time is right. 

8 thoughts on “Fixing our Fibre Problem: Paper and Cardboard Does Not Belong in Landfill”

  • Kia Ora L & H, Is it possible to recycle cardboard that has a “glossy” printed surface on it, e.g. pasta packets, tea packets, toothpaste packets? Or are we just putting them in the recycling bin and hoping for the best? Is there somewhere that has a definitive list of what is and isn’t being recycled in Aotearoa? Many thanks for all your efforts in the Zero Waste realm.

    • Kia ora Tolly, Will try and answer your question as succinctly and clearly as possible… Under ordinary circumstances, the glossy/printed cardboard you describe would be accepted in basically all of NZ’s recycling collections. However, as this post notes, NZ has a mixed paper and cardboard recycling crisis because we are dependent on overseas markets for 50% of our total paper/cardboard consumption and those markets are closing partly because of COVID-19, but partly because of our mixed paper/cardboard contamination rates. So, COVID-19 or not, increasingly, large proportions of NZ’s paper and cardboard may be going to landfill until we sort out our on-shore processing capacity, or our collection methods to minimise contamination. In addition, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic (which is mostly separate to the cardboard/paper recycling crisis), most of the country’s recycling (of all materials, not just paper/cardboard) is not being processed (even if it is being collected) and is going to landfill. So, in summary, if you can do what you can to reduce paper and cardboard coming into your home (easier said than done at this point in time, but still possible) and compost/worm farm the stuff you cannot avoid, that’s great. Alternatively, or additionally, stockpile whatever you can until after lockdown/reductions in alert levels when recycling processing will start up again (noting though that if you are in a part of the country like Auckland or Christchurch, that paper and cardboard may still end up going to landfill because of the paper/cardboard recycling crisis).

      • Kia Ora korua. When the recycling system is operating “normally” i.e. not during the pandemic, can that glossy cardboard & paper be successfully recycled? Do we rely on sending it overseas to recycle it?

        • Hiya – we have the capacity to recycle 50% of NZ’s paper/cardboard consumption on-shore. So, depending on where in the country you are located, your paper/cardboard recycling may be processed onshore or it may be exported for processing. There’s nothing about glossy paper that makes it any different to any other paper that might put it into a special category – the point is that we use more paper and cardboard in NZ than we can process onshore, that’s why we are reliant on sending half of it offshore. The only exception is if it’s glossy because it’s plastic-lined (like the inside of a coffee bag) – in which case it’s landfill only.

  • Hi all,
    MyNoke is working hard getting large quantities of collected cardboard and paper into our industrial vermicomposting operations. We are currently processing most of all NZ pulpmill solids, which are the lost fibres from pulp and paper mills. Cardboard and waste paper is very similar the wet (lost) fibre “pulpmill solids” but slightly more processing for cardboard is required for successful vermicomposting. Glossy paper is no issue for us. So are paper towels and paper waste from food processing industry, which usually is not accepted for recycling. Some plastic contamination can be tolerated as compost worms are ‘eating’ around the plastic e.g. stickers and we can screen these out to avoid micro plastic contamination. But separation at source is key to minimise those.
    It is absolutely possible to have NZ wide vermicomposting of cardboard and paper waste for producing high quality soil conditioner, increasing humus levels, and sequester carbon.

    • Thanks so much for this comment, Michael! Really appreciated to have your insights, and the potential role large-scale vermicomposting could play here. And that’s so great that your worm farms could accept cardboard/paper… Will update the page to include this as a potential scaleable solution.

  • Glad to hear Michael Quintern say that nation wide worm composting of paper and cardboard is feasible.
    I save my newspapers to soak, compress and dry into burnable logs for my fire, but home composting any large quantity for urban dwellers is too big an ask and therefore not likely to happen. There is no mention of your MyNoke composting systems in my area so transportation would be a limiting factor. But can you foresee an industrial operation in every region available to local governments?
    Recently I inquired of our local ‘dump’ where a truck load of flattened cardboard boxes (from an overseas household return) should be placed for recycling. I was shocked to hear that they really did not want it as they have to send it to India at a loss. I had not realized that we were not recycling all our paper and cardboard in NZ.
    This is absolutely unacceptable. It is also the result of using the profit industry to take away our problems. They will always look for the cheapest cost and most profit. Recycling and waste disposal MUST be controlled by the Government of Every country (not the local authorities) and kept within borders (unless there is a sound environmental plus to export). Employ and pay business to do the work but manage it. What can’t be managed needs to be prevented from coming into the country by mandating acceptable reusable containers.
    3 decades ago we bought our nails and screws by the handful in a paper bag from a wooden nail box that we DIY folk lined up to beg for making shelves and all sorts of things – (Health and Safety needs to review their mandate that all things must be plastic packaged to avoid bodily harm.) Likewise with groceries (which was taken home loose in a shopping bag and washed).. Modern packaging is more about convenience. We will have to pay – thru increased GST or tax – but the Government is the only force big enough to take a strong enough stance, with Laws, to protect us from drowning in our rubbish. We just have to set up the infrastructure to do it, whatever the cost. Maybe the Government supports the worm composting industry by delivering the paper products free (on a sliding scale related to fair profit?). Or supports the virgin paper makers to reprocess recycled papers as well on site.

  • Hi there,
    Is there much mileage in asking the government to insist on a certain percentage of recycled fibre in things like toilet paper?
    How much of our excess waste cardboard problem could this solve?

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