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Paper recycling industry takes strain, but urges consumers to keep recycling

Picture: Josh Withers/Unsplash

What are the various types of recycled paper used for?

According to RecyclePaperZA, the country’s leading paper recycling association, more than 12 million tons of paper and paper packaging have been recovered for recycling in SA over the past decade.

This waste paper was diverted from ending up in landfills and recycled into new products – such as tissue products, newsprint and paper packaging for the agricultural, manufacturing and retail sectors.

In 2018, SA collected 71.7% of recoverable paper and packaging**, amounting to 1.285 million tons, the association said in a decent press release.

Paper products… South Africa recycles millions of tons of paper each year. Picture: Brandi Redd/Unsplash

“South Africa is in the enviable position of being able to use up to 90% of its recovered waste paper locally by recycling it into new paper, packaging and tissue,” says Anele Sololo, general manager of RecyclePaperZA.

The balance of waste paper is exported.

The global paper recycling industry, however, is faced with over-supply.

“There are various economic factors at play, not least of which is China’s stricter requirement for cleaner waste imports since 2017,” says Sololo. This means that about 30 million tons of waste paper from around the world needs to find a new home and use.

Search for a paper bank in SA here

In SA, the severe drought in fruit-growing regions has had a knock-on effect for the paper packaging sector. “Corrugators produce less boxes for fruit, with the result being that mills produce less paper which affects waste paper consumption rates,” said Sololo.

“It is important to understand that collectors are paid for the recyclables they collect, and the higher the value of that recyclable, the more likely they are to collect it,” says Sololo. The lower demand in the market will effect a price drop, as mills need to ensure they remain commercially viable, and unfortunately this affects recycling collectors and traders.

Players in the SA paper industry are, however, investing in research and development of alternative uses for recycled paper to ensure that recyclable paper and paperboard continues to be diverted from landfills and help improve demand for recycled paper fibre.

Different recycled paper products need different ingredients

On the home front, some citizens may be a little confused about why some types of paper – such as newspapers – are not wanted by collectors.

Just as chocolate cakes may differ slightly in terms of their ingredients, so too does paper. Printing paper, tissue, cardboard boxes, paper bags and sacks all require different types and quantities of raw materials. “The difference in paper recipes may even be customer-specific which makes papermaking an exact science,” says Sololo.

Historically, newspapers were required as a raw material for newsprint manufacturing. The declining newspaper consumption, largely due to online media, has resulted in the closure of newsprint machines in South Africa.

“In 2011, South Africa produced 316,725 tons of newsprint,” says Sololo, adding that in 2018, the annual newsprint production was less than half the 2011 figure, at 113,912 tonnes. This in turn has reduced the demand for used newspapers by paper mills.

Reclining newspaper circulation in SA, 2020 figures

Newspapers are still used in the manufacture of moulded fibre products such as egg cartons, takeaway cup holders and fruit trays. “This is where brand owners and retailers can help make a difference – by moving from plastic to paper for their packaging,” notes Sololo. A classic example is polystyrene vegetable and fruit trays – these can be made effectively from paper pulp.

Some grades of paper are in higher demand than others. As an example, there is more use for white paper, as it requires less deinking and cleaning than newspapers and magazines. White paper also contains better quality fibres for “paper recipes”.

What are the various types of paper recycled into?

White office paper is made from certified, sustainably produced virgin wood fibre, especially if it is made in South Africa. White paper, which contains good quality fibre, is recycled into tissue products and is also added to the other paper recipes.

Brown cardboard boxes are repulped into new cardboard boxes and brown kraft paper, which in turn can also be converted into sacks and bags.

A worker recycles material at the WISH recycling centre near Midmar Dam.

Liquid packaging board (beverage cartons and paper cups) comprises long, strong virgin fibre, also from sustainably managed forests, which is a great ingredient for paper products that require strength. The plastic and foil layers in liquid packaging board are separated from the paper in the recycling process and can be used in a range of applications such as plastic garden furniture.

Common or mixed paper and cardboard packaging (cereal and dry food cartons, coloured paper, magazines, toilet roll cores) are classified by the industry as “common mixed waste”. These go into recipes for various paper products, even tissue – if the mill has a deinking plant.

What should we do with “old news”?

Fortunately, newspaper is very versatile and can be used for many things. Here are our top five but you can find a more comprehensive list on

Animal shelters – donate your old newspapers to animal shelters who will use them to line the kennels and catteries.

Compost and worm farms – earthworms love a tasty snack of newspaper. Add dampened, shredded newspaper to your compost heap or worm farm.

Fruit and vegetable drawer liners – place sheets of newspaper at the bottom of the fruit and vegetable drawer in your fridge. They will absorb any mess from rotten produce, and will also keep the drawer free from odours.

Gift wrap – use newspaper to wrap gifts and decorate with some string and sprig of rosemary or lavender.

Table padding – lay newspaper underneath a tablecloth. It’s an excellent replacement for expensive padding, and will help protect your table from spills and other damage.

Notties Earth Heroes: Volunteers get litter off the streets to recycling centre

Support your local collector

Support your neighbourhood recycling collectors – find out what they collect and put this in a separate bag for them. You may opt to support the same person each week or simply put a bag out on your pavement on a first come, first serve basis.

Support a school or community centre under the Mpact Recycling paper bank programme. The company is in the process of upgrading some of its sites so separation is key: white paper in one bag, cardboard in one bag, beverage cartons in one bag, cereal boxes, coloured paper and where applicable magazines in one bag. Look for your nearest paper bank here.

Support recycling collection businesses which offer a paid service. Do a web search for “recycling collection services” for your area.

Explore your local shopping centre and find out if they have a recycling zone.
So keep up with those recycling efforts! And keep your paper clean and dry, and separate from other waste.

** Recoverable paper excludes paper which is unrecoverable or unsuitable for recycling. For example, toilet tissue and sanitary products, cigarette paper and archive material.


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