Surprise Growth in Paper Recycling Cited

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Americans are recycling paper at a surprisingly growing rate, which will help boost wood supplies and offset logging cutbacks tied to wildlife protection, Forest Service researchers say.

“Our view of wastepaper recycling has changed. We now expect it to accelerate more quickly in the 1990s and beyond,” Forest Service economist Joanne Alig said.

Previous government predictions of a coming timber supply shortage vastly underestimated recycling growth, according to Alig and Peter Ince, a research forester and chief author of the new study.


“Ten years ago when we were looking at recycling we thought there would be some increase, but nothing like this,” added David Darr, the Forest Service’s branch chief for economics, trade and market research.

Separately, the Forest Service said production of U.S. softwood lumber such as pine and fir should finish the year 5% lower than last year, largely as a result of declining demand for housing.

The “Outlook for Timber Products” by Forest Service researcher Robert Phelps points to declining housing construction as a main reason for the dropping softwood lumber supply and demand.

As for recycling, Ince and Alig expect nearly a doubling over the next 50 years of the amount of recycled paper used in relation to all paper and cardboard production--from 26.4% in 1989 to 31% by 2000 and 45% by 2040.

“Although a future utilization rate of 45% may seem extraordinarily high by current U.S. standards, this rate has been achieved in Japan and West Germany,” they said.

They noted that each of the 50 states has enacted some form of recycling legislation in recent years.


“The recycling issue has been brought home to nearly every American. . . . People in most households now separate plastic bottles, aluminum cans and bundled newspapers from other trash.”

Alig and Ince are affiliated with the Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis. Alig presented their paper last Wednesday at the Agriculture Department’s annual outlook conference in Washington.

The researchers said reducing Northwest logging to save the threatened northern spotted owl will have short-term effects on the market--dropping supply, raising prices and costing jobs.

But they said acceleration of recycling should cancel a projected shortage of softwood saw timber in the South as early as the turn of the century and reverse the trend in the Northwest by 2010.

“In contrast to the rising pulpwood prices that had been projected, the future now promises timber growth that more nearly matches the growing demand for pulpwood.

“As pulpwood prices are stabilized over the long term and the North American industry relies more heavily on recycled fiber, the combined effect will be a substantial increase in fiber supply,” they wrote.


Jeffrey Olson, an economist for the Wilderness Society, said the report marks the first time the Forest Service has acknowledged that recycling can expand the resource base and maintain job levels.

But Con Schallau, an economist for the industry’s American Forest Resource Alliance, said officials are mistakenly “pinning their hopes on accelerated paper recycling, believing that will result in significant additional timber inventories.”

“These conclusions are tentative at best,” added Alberto Goetzl, vice president of economics for the National Forest Products Assn.

Darr countered that “these projections may be tentative, but they are the only ones around.”

“We can be confident in the general direction recycling is taking us. It is bound to have some impact on timber supply,” he said.