Heidi Brock is president and CEO of the American Forest & Paper Association, a trade group representing U.S. paper and wood products manufacturers.
As we celebrate the 24th annual celebration of America Recycles Day, paper recycling can be looked to as a model that works, especially for policymakers focused on recycling reforms.
When you put paper products in the recycling bin, they get recycled into something new — another box, a paper bag or tissue products. Paper recycling is the gift that keeps on giving, and paper and cardboard continue to be some of the most highly recycled materials in the United States.
Last year, according to AF&PA data, nearly 68% of paper consumed in America was recycled. This is a rate that has remained consistently high — meeting or exceeding 63% for more than a decade. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Americans, 94%, have access to some form of community paper and paperboard recycling program.
Across several states, including New York, extended producer responsibility is a waste management strategy that is getting a lot of attention. Four states have already enacted EPR laws — Maine, Oregon, Colorado and California. Meanwhile, a national EPR bill has also been introduced in Congress.
EPR is not a new concept. It’s typically put in place for producers who pay for the end-of-life costs of products that are difficult to recycle or dispose of. This includes current programs for items such as paint, mattresses or batteries. But paper and paper-based packaging are safely and easily managed in existing, successful recycling systems across the country.
It is encouraging to see a renewed focus on improving recycling infrastructure to support sustainable products. Yet, there is a significant risk for paper in some EPR proposals.
Policies that take a “one-size-fits-all” approach, like the ones introduced in Congress and in New York, could negatively impact the long-term success of paper recycling.
The proposals could essentially force good actors to subsidize the costs for less recycled materials. This will disrupt state recycling programs and curb the voluntary investments made by industries like ours.
So far, the U.S. paper industry has invested $7 billion in manufacturing infrastructure, completed or announced, from 2019 to 2025. This includes new paper mills, new paper machines and the conversion of existing paper machines to make products that are more in demand. Notably, these investments will use more than 9 million tons of recycled paper.
Our industry also continues to innovate with new products designed to be recycled, like all-paper padded mailers for e-commerce. These types of products embody a vision for the circular economy in action.
EPR policies must differentiate between materials with robust end markets from those with lower rates. This is where states like California are leading with a first-of-its-kind “off ramp” provision for highly recycled materials, such as paper.
It is crucial that lawmakers consider the complexities and potential impacts of a hastily crafted EPR program. California’s data-driven approach is a prime example of a policy that follows recycling needs.
In the spirit of America Recycles Day, let’s work together to ensure paper recycling remains strong and innovative for decades to come.
Contributed pieces do not reflect an editorial position by Waste Dive.