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.
- We must take these things seriously and recognise that our waste woes go beyond plastic.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.