Even though it happened as recently as 2017, the days when China was importing 28 million tonnes of recovered fibre in a single calendar year are now a fast-fading memory. According to Ercan Yürekli, guest speaker at our Budapest meeting in October 2019, Chinese fibre import volumes are likely to drop as low as 5 million tonnes in 2020, thereby further redrawing the international trading landscape of yesteryear.
But as an industry, we have always seen challenges as opportunities. Moments after outlining the daunting scale of the decline in China’s overseas fibre purchases, Mr Yürekli from the national association of Turkish paper and plastic recyclers and collectors (TÜDAM) was focusing on possible alternative outlets. His own country, he revealed, is expecting domestic paper industry capacity to jump from around 4.2 million tonnes in 2019 to between 6 and 7 million tonnes by the year 2023 – and yet the country is struggling to push its collection rate beyond 40%. Turkish recovered fibre imports have already soared from just over 300,000 tonnes in 2015 to nearer 1 million tonnes in 2019, with further growth to perhaps 2 to 3 million tonnes envisaged by 2023.
As noted at our meeting in Singapore last May, 2019 also brought a significant increase in sales opportunities in other countries too, including most notably India, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Such observations provide us with much-needed hope for the future given that, in Europe for example, there is a differential of almost 8 million tonnes between the 56.7 million tonnes of paper and board collected for recycling each year in Europe and the 48.8 million tonnes consumed. This surplus is structural in nature, with exports to markets outside of Europe representing the only obvious pressure valve.
Even though China was buying in 2019, its focus was on purchases of US material. Thus, last year was characterized largely by a combination of high stocks along the chain, difficulties in finding export markets for our fibre and pressure on prices. Indeed, values close to zero or even into negative territory have been widely mentioned by industry members, alongside comments about the near impossibility of imposing recycling fees on suppliers to render viable some of our more marginal sorting and processing operations.
The bottom line is that margins have been so compromised on certain grades that there has been no incentive to sort. Was this in the dream scenario when the circular economy was first envisaged? And how should we as an industry respond to such challenging market conditions? More than ever before, our point of difference must be production of high-quality materials that conform absolutely to the standards, needs and expectations of our individual customers. If we fail in this regard, a significant proportion of materials will struggle to find profitable outlets or, indeed, any outlets at all.
As pointed out in Budapest by our General Delegate Sébastien Ricard of Paprec Recyclage, the purchase of manufactured goods from China and the subsequent return of the recyclable packaging to that same country for production of new packaging materials had created over many years the perfect example of a circular economy. But there has been little credit or appreciation for the carbon dioxide emissions saved in this way.
What these people should also know is that mills and governments throughout the world – not just in China – have become increasingly demanding with regard to the quality they are prepared to accept. Quality is not an add-on extra; it is an absolute necessity if business is to be done.
With more limited export options and new capacity developments insufficient to absorb a recovered fibre surplus, it is clear that Europe and other traditional exporting regions of the world will need to devote more time and research to developing new markets – and potentially new product outlets – for recovered fibre. It was therefore interesting and encouraging to hear from our Division’s Vice President Martin Leander that the insulation and hygiene sectors in Sweden have been trialling wider use of recovered fibre in their products.
Another inspiring thought was voiced in Singapore by our Honorary President Dominique Maguin. Overall demand for paper would expand as a result of global population growth, he said, and the best way to produce that paper would be from recycled fibre because it was less expensive and less polluting.
Made from vegetable fibres called cellulose, paper as we know it today was first created in China more than 2000 years ago. Since the advent of the printing press in the 15th century, its use has spread across all continents to the extent that, currently, it is hard to imagine the world without this versatile material. Around 420 million tonnes of paper and cardboard are produced worldwide every year, with well over half of the raw material coming from recovered sources.
Some 50-60% of recovered paper comes from industry and business. This includes paper trimmings, cuttings and shavings from manufacturers and converters, as well as goods discarded before they reach the consumer, such as unsold newspapers and magazines. The remaining recovered fibre comes from households.
THE NEED FOR FREE TRADE
Recovered fibre collections in, notably, North America and Europe easily exceed local consumption needs and so overseas trade has become a major component of this market. But despite the environmental, social and economic advantages of the worldwide trade in recovered paper, flows have been disrupted over recent years. China established itself as the leading importer of recovered fibre, buying around 30 million tonnes per annum from overseas suppliers at one stage. However, the Chinese government has recently imposed more stringent import rules, with the result that overseas purchases are believed to have declined below 10 million tonnes in 2019 and are expected to drop still further.
Similarly restrictive import measures have also been introduced by other countries in Asia which had been leading buyers of surplus material from Europe, thus impacting the global market and creating widespread concern over the diminishing outlets for the world’s excess volumes because of a move away from the free trade principles supported by BIR.
TEN QUESTIONS ABOUT PAPER RECOVERY AND RECYCLING
Recovered paper is a valuable raw material that can be reused to create new paper and board products. Paper recovery is preferable to landfill or incineration for energy recovery.
Almost any household paper can be recycled, including used newspapers, cardboard, packaging, stationery, “direct mail”, magazines, catalogues, greetings cards and wrapping paper. It is important that these papers are kept separate from other household waste, as contaminated papers are not acceptable for recycling.
Some paper products are not collectable and/or recyclable. The share of such paper products - which comprise, for example, cigarette papers, wallpaper, tissue papers and archives - is estimated at 15-20% of total paper consumption. Furthermore, it might not be economically or environmentally sound to collect and recycle all fibres that are theoretically available because of heavy transportation costs.
Depending somewhat on the paper grade, it can be recycled 3 to 8 times.
Basically all paper grades can be produced based entirely on recovered paper. However, paper cannot be recycled endlessly and so the system requires a constant injection of virgin fibres.
Yes it is, and this is done on a broad basis. Obviously, most paper products can be produced using only recovered or virgin fibres, but it is also possible to use both at the same time.
The method of collecting recovered paper depends on its source. From large industrial and commercial sources, the volumes are so high that they have dedicated collection equipment. For households, recyclable materials such as paper and board packaging, plastics packaging, etc. are collected together; in other cases, single-stream collections are undertaken.
The most important contribution is to ensure used paper is made available for collection via whatever local system is in place, keeping it separate from contamination such as food waste which could render it unsuitable for recycling.
Paper recycling contributes to sustainable development as natural resources are used in an efficient way. Consigning paper to landfills would be an utter waste of a valuable resource. Recycling of fibres allows for a more responsible way of managing soil and forests as trees can store more carbon dioxide for longer. It has been calculated that the recycling of a single tonne of paper saves 17 trees on average.
The biggest source of recovered paper is formed by industry and businesses (50-60%). This also covers converting losses (cuttings, shavings) and returns of unsold newspapers and magazines. The remaining recovered paper comes from households.