When mixed paper and OCC markets are in freefall
Composting steps in as an alternative to traditional waste paper and cardboard recycling
Market fluctuations are not a new phenomenon for mixed paper and old corrugated cardboard (OCC) recycling. The most recent trade war turbulence is neither unexpected nor unique.
The truth is, for the last 20 or 30 years, the profit or loss potential for these commodities has been swinging like wind chimes in a stiff breeze. Whether the resulting sound is a tolerable resonance or cacophonous jangle largely depends on readiness.
As history repeats itself, markets for recyclables are going to shift, sometimes, dramatically. Accept the inevitable. Embrace it. But most of all, plan for it. There will be times when waste managers need an alternative to mammoth paper and cardboard stockpiles that’s more cost-effective than landfilling or incineration.
Enter composting – a reliable, affordable recycling backup plan for all things organic, including mixed paper and OCC. If you’re like the MRF operator paying $56/ton to get rid of the stuff, composting can be a very attractive lifesaver. It’s a service that’s available now, not months or years into the future when new domestic paper recyclers are expected to be up and running.
Composters can use the carbon
Wood waste was once abundant, an easy-to-source amendment for composting operations. But like so many other industries, composting could do little but watch as this resource bled away to other markets, mostly waste-to-energy and other wood-hungry combustion technologies, both in the U.S. and overseas.
As a result, it’s not unusual for today’s composting operation to accept wood-based waste products for a low-to-no tipping fee if that tonnage is clean and already ground/shredded. If the facility operator has to grind, the tipping fee will increase to cover that cost. Using mixed paper and OCC saves composters the expense of buying virgin materials like sawdust to use as a bulking agent while offering MRF managers a recycling option that can be less than half the cost of local disposal.
But the mixed paper and OCC stream has to be clean
Composting operations can’t use a feedstock stream that’s contaminated, because the resulting compost has little to no market value.
Contaminants include all types of non-degradable plastics and foam products, as well as metal and glass. Depending on the facility and process employed, some compostable plastics and films will not be acceptable, either.
Typically, bio-resins require a modern, high-rate process for rapid biodegradation, and most U.S. composting operations are still using older technologies. It’s not that these types of plastics won’t degrade using slower systems. But the rate is too sluggish for the system’s designed throughput rate.
That leaves obvious, partially-degraded plastics in finished product, rendering the entire batch unsalable. Finer screens can help, but the extra handling adds to costs and can still leave visible contaminants in the final product.
Small metal bits like nails and staples tend to “disappear” during high-rate composting, but broken glass poses unsurmountable problems for every type of process. Since shards can be small enough to pass through screens, compost contaminated with glass is unsafe and cannot be used for anything but boiler fuel or landfill cover.
On the positive side, biodegradable items that are usually banned in the mixed paper/OCC recycling stream (like pizza boxes, paper towels and paper-based fast food wrappers) can all divert to composting. It doesn’t matter if the paper or cardboard is dirty or has a wax coating. Most modern, high-rate facilities will be able to handle it. Untreated/unpainted pallets can be added to the carbon mix, too.
Diverting a variety of carbon-based materials away from landfills and incinerators might offset the cost of composting the mixed paper and OCC. Of course, the amount of savings (if any) depends on volumes diverted and local disposal fees.
Composting can offer both short-term solutions and long-term stability for paper and cardboard recycling.
Find a composter
Whether seeking a one-time rescue or a more stable, permanent alternative to traditional mixed paper and OCC markets, a local composting operation could be the answer.
Waste managers in the Carolinas, Mid-Atlantic, Florida, and Ireland can also contact McGill directly for a quote.