Paper Drives: Suddenly, They're Old News : Environment: The recycling craze has driven down the value of old newspapers and, ironically, has forced some groups to find alternatives to the fund-raising tradition.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's become a longtime ritual that Mike Stewart has found difficult to end, despite its obvious drawbacks.

For years, the Boy Scouts of America Sea Explorer skipper has grabbed a few of his scouts, hooked up a long trailer to his van and trucked down to Santa Ana Recycling Center to dump off two tons of used newspapers. Usual take: $180.

The money from his semimonthly paper drive helps keep the troop's 43-foot sailing vessel, the Del Mar, in ship-shape condition.

The take from the latest haul: $48.95, gross. And they still have to pay for the gasoline.

"It's really getting to the point where it's not worth it anymore," Stewart said. "I've been trying to decide what else to do (to raise funds). If I can come up with a better solution, we'd drop this (paper drive) real fast."

If that happens, Stewart will join a growing number of nonprofit groups in Southern California who have given up on paper drives, a fund-raising tradition that organizations ranging from booster clubs to scout troops have relied on for decades.

With cities, companies and residents jumping on the recycling bandwagon and taking advantage of curbside recycling and other convenient ways to dump yesterday's news, the recycling industry has experienced what many say is a veritable glut of old newspapers.

Due to the economic law of supply and demand, the excess paper has caused its value to plummet, said Ken McEntee, publisher of the Cleveland-based Paper Stock Report newsletter, which tracks the paper recycling market in the United States.

Indeed, about two years ago, recyclers paid as much as $90 a ton for used newspapers. But after the passage of a 1989 state law requiring local governments to find ways to recycle 25% of trash by 1995, used-newspaper prices fell to an average $10 a ton.

Some companies have been paying far less. A few recyclers reportedly have resorted to charging people for leaving their trash because of resale market conditions.

Although prices in recent months have crept up to about $25 a ton in some places, the market continues to hover at the $10 to $20 level, where it is expected to remain for at least another year.

Pro-ecology attitudes toward recycling has had a large effect on the market.

"People have learned that it is wrong to throw away recyclables," McEntee noted. "They realize that we're running out of landfills."

In the past, recycling centers did most of their business with nonprofit groups, who hauled in large trailers filled with tons of newspaper that they had saved for months at a time.

Profits from the recycled newspapers underwrote new uniforms, new equipment, field trips and other necessities to keep the church, troop or team going.

Now, operators say they see more individuals pulling into the recycling yards in their own cars with trunks and back seats loaded with newspapers.

"There is a mandate to recycle," said Paul Toomey of Anaheim-based Dalton Recycling Enterprises. "It's made the market change dramatically in the past year."

Indeed, the boom has created a need for a new technology that wasn't necessary during the '80s, when only scout troops and church leaders saw the inside of a recycling yard.

"I don't think there is a glut per se," argues Gordon Hart, a spokesman for the Sierra Club's legislative office in Sacramento. "We're seeing the problem at the demand level. There really aren't enough creative new uses for the (recycled paper)."

For years, more than half of the West Coast's recycled newspaper has been sent to Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, where it is processed into a variety of products, including egg cartons, packaging boxes or other low-quality paper products.

The United States, on the other hand, has relatively few processing plants for recycled paper, industry spokesmen say. The major domestic uses for recycled newspaper include roofing materials, insulation and corrugated boxes.

"There just aren't a lot of uses for recycled paper here," Hart said. "But things should be changing in the near future."

That change will come as more governments and companies comply with the state recycling law. This is expected to spur more construction of recycling plants that are equipped to de-ink the paper, revert it to pulp and re-mill it into fresh newsprint.

Al Strickman, a San Diego-based recycling consultant who wrote another state law that requires newspapers to use 25% recycled paper, predicted that changes are coming sooner than many industry analysts realize.

"There's going to be a real revolution in the industry," he said.

There are currently five so-called re-milling plants in the United States. But, he added, there is construction going on now of five new plants and plans for an additional 10.

With more than a dozen new domestic facilities on line in the next five years, the market will not be subject to whims of the Asian paper buyers, who often create large fluctuations in used newspaper prices.

The new competition is expected to eventually bring the cost of paper back up.

"The whole thing is very, very favorable for the future," Strickman said.

But until then, some former paper drivers in Orange County say that they have had to regroup and find alternative ways to make fast cash.

Robert Laxton, activities director at Santa Ana High School, said that gone are the days when members of the school's various booster clubs set aside a Saturday afternoon to gather in the high school parking lot and collect newspapers from other parents.

It used to be that a $300 to $500 profit for a day's work was considered normal. Now "you get really nothing for the time you put into it," Laxton said.

"I couldn't keep kids or parents interested in it," Laxton said.

The drop has forced booster club organizers to be more creative in their fund-raising efforts by selling bumper stickers, key chains and license plate holders, holding bingo tournaments or switching their recycling efforts to the collection of cans and bottles.

"People are selling candy, and using catalogue sales," Laxton said. "Some high school groups are turning toward the flea market type of thing."

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