A Wobble in the Recycling Loop

May 19, 2009

Being able to identify and segregate waste materials has historically produced recycling success stories; curiosity about those materials and their unexplored potential could lead to low-cost inputs for tomorrow’s innovative products.

The opening scene of WALL•E, last year’s Oscar-winning animated film, shows the title character moving about on recycled tractor treads, eyeing waste with recycled binocular eyes. Not that the waste is hard to spot, since this future Earth is literally buried in rubble, which WALL•E tirelessly compacts and stacks skyward. Though the story is said to be set 700 years in the future, Pixar’s movie strikes a timely chord. Waste, and what we do with it, is more newsworthy today than ever before. Like WALL•E, we’ve gotten reasonably efficient at collecting waste, but erecting neat skyscrapers of the stuff hardly solves the problem.

With the downturn in the economy and its devastating impact on manufacturing, many of our reclaimed materials are piling up faster than they can be re-utilized. With the weakened demand for new products, even waste bearing a recycling symbol can end up in storage or landfill. What does this mean for the recycling of products in commercial interiors, where labeling is virtually non-existent and careful disassembly or de-installation is not typically found in anyone’s job description? Can the consumer recycling scenario shed any light on the destiny of commercial products like seating and all of its components? Along these lines, paper seems particularly instructive.

Americans use about 30 million tons of cardboard per year, more than any other type of paper. Until recently, corrugated waste was a booming export. In 2001 for instance, American wastepaper destined for pulping and reforming in China’s Nine Dragons Paper Company constituted, by volume, our country’s single largest export. With the exponential growth of Chinese manufacturing, box production needed to keep pace. And with little forestry to draw on for raw materials, China’s demand for corrugated waste rose quickly, taking the price of wastepaper to $200 per ton. After the collapse of more than 670,000 Chinese businesses last year, the price of wastepaper had fallen to $20 per ton, and a surplus of American wastepaper is now languishing in warehouses.¹


  1. Osnos, Evan, “Wastepaper Queen,” The New Yorker, March 30, 2009
  2. www.researchandmarkets.com/product/e9a1e8/recycling_in_textiles
  3. http://earth911.com/paper/video-how-paper-gets-recycled

The problem is clearly global. The UK, which has also depended on being able to sell waste at a profit to China, is currently sitting on recyclable material, housing it in warehouses and former military bases. Without knowing when the slump will end, the British Environment Agency and the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) are considering relaxing regulations on how much waste can be stored and for how long. Without more lenient regulations, tons of potentially recyclable waste will go to landfill.

What’s instructive about the meteoric rise and sudden drop in the price of wastepaper is the “perfect storm” nature of it. One set of circumstances came together to make wastepaper a valuable raw material for a product with an expanding market: boxes. Another set of circumstances have conspired to create an overwhelming surplus. Waiting for the box market to rebound presumes that that perfect combination of events will reassemble somewhere. In the meantime, perhaps we need to envision the next products or processes for which wastepaper is the ideal input; maybe even products or processes that capitalize on the ability of paper to biodegrade, under the right conditions.

The beauty of the paper example is its simplicity. Cardboard is the standard material used to make a box, and wastepaper is widely available for box manufacturing. Like the aluminum in beverage cans, there aren’t a lot of competitive materials to splinter the market, and the large-scale sorting that needs to be done to keep feeding waste back into production is in place. Cardboard and aluminum are also known qualities when it comes to their tolerances for processing. Corrugated paper pulps repeatedly (though it does eventually degrade); while aluminum forms the same way again and again.

If we look critically at recycled raw materials, we start to see a hierarchy of value that begins at the low end with materials that are miscellaneous or amalgamated in nature, topping out with materials that are homogeneous in nature. Think about all the carpet underlay and padded envelope filler in the world. All of it came from some unidentified mix of textile materials called “shoddy,” which is relegated to uses that don’t require consistency in design or processing. Now think about 100 percent nylon materials going back into 100 percent nylon carpet tile. Being able to be easily identified or segregated is typically what improves the quality of most recyclables. The recycling success stories we can point to have this in common: the waste was identifiable and homogenous. As such, it could either be reused in the same process, or its consistent properties could be explored for new and innovative uses.

Let’s consider this homogenous scenario as it pertains to plastic, moving a little closer to the world of interiors, where extruded plastic in the form of fiber is present in polyester upholstery, nylon carpet, and polypropylene wall coverings, among other synthetic fiber products. The American Plastic Council provides standardized labeling for these plastics and others as they exist in packaging. Labeling paves the way for No. 1 PET bottles to come back as Polartec® polyester fleece, and for No. 5 PP yogurt containers to come back as Recycline’s Preserve™ brand polypropylene toothbrushes (to mention two recycling success stories).

In theory, labeling of the parts used in furniture and finishes could free up recyclable materials every time a renovation occurs in an office, store, hotel, or hospital. But in practice, will our commercial products prove to be too diverse in material content to be labeled, much less harvested? Textiles are a good example of the challenge that comes, not just from additives like dyestuffs, but from the spectrum of fiber types typically found in commercial interiors. A solution is clearly needed to lay claim to the 10 million tons of textile waste produced in Europe and America each year. A new report edited by Dr. Youjiang Wand of the Georgia Institute of Technology articulates the problem well: “Considering the diversity of fibrous waste and structures, many technologies must work in concert in an integrated industry in order to increase the rate of recycling.”²

To go back to our paper example, one of the technological advances that allows paper to be recycled at a U.S. rate of 56 percent (a remarkable feat compared to the rates for most other recyclables), is called de-inking.³ While paper still must be sorted by grades for different recycling uses, the process of de-inking that became commercially available in the 1990s has broadened the types of paper that can be harvested for re-pulping. The refinement of de-inking technologies in recent years means a grade called OMG can now be recycled. That’s “Old MaGazine” waste in the paper trade, but the more familiar exclamation also fits, given that more than 4 million tons produced annually had no place to go but landfill (before de-inking was developed).

This example heralds a new kind of reverse engineering—not the kind that’s employed to discover how the thing is made in order to make it cheaper—but one that seeks to filter out the components that hold materials back from a higher value of recycling. Recently, on www.yet2.com, there was an example of this kind of thinking in a new patented technology from DuPont that deodorizes HDPE plastic (which is prone to absorbing the scent of whatever it is containing) so it can be recycled into new containers. Taken together, standard labeling and filtering technologies could open new reutilization options for many materials that are currently sent to landfill because they are not easily identified or de-contaminated.

Maybe it will be a long time before manufacturers are again running at full tilt, generating enough production to use all the paper, plastic and textiles we have stockpiled. But curiosity about those raw materials and their unexplored potential could lead to rediscovering them as abundant, low-cost inputs for tomorrow’s innovative products. American manufacturing has in its DNA a strong propensity for the imaginative. Perhaps subtle forces like the Construction Waste Management credits in LEED® are already signaling design and engineering schools to sample these stockpiles for re-manufacturing potential. Likewise, “design for recycling” credits imbedded in an upcoming sustainability standard for business and institutional furniture (BIFMA’s “e3” standard) move end-of-life considerations up to the design-for-the-environment phase. Viewed through the BIFMA lens, the adoption of an ISO labeling system for each recyclable component in furniture looks do-able, if not imminent.

One last note about paper: historically, it was made from recycled cotton and linen rags. The first U.S. paper mill, built near Philadelphia in 1690, began with recycled textiles as its feedstock. Maybe it’s time to de-ink the textile waste and give it a try.

Carol Derby is the director of Environmental Strategy for Designtex, a Steelcase company that designs and develops surface materials for commercial interiors. She also serves as the president of the Association for Contract Textiles and is a member of the Joint Committee of the Sustainable Textile Standard, which is currently being developed as an ANSI-certified standard with ACT, GreenBlue, and NSF. She can be reached at [email protected].

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