Musings on Recycling Paper and the Tissue Market
by Steve Sutta
Increased tissue use is one of the signs of a wealthier world. As over 1 billion people in China and in other regions of the world exit a state of poverty, demand has grown rapidly for tissue products: bathroom tissue, hand towels, diapers, etc. Once GDP in a country rises above $3000/year per person, tissue usage grows geometrically.
More than half of all the tissue manufactured worldwide is made from recycled paper, what we in the industry call "secondary fiber." Shredded office documents, printer’s waste, and other end of life processes for paper products make up secondary fiber.
At a paper plant. shredded scrap paper drops into a giant pulper. Imagine a blender churning a mixture called slurry in a basin the size of a large wading pool, 20’ deep. Slurry is a solution of .1% paper fibers and 99.9% water. This mixture then flows onto a slowly moving screen. Think of your window screen. Paper fibers attach to the screen and pile up. Relatively quickly, a loosely woven sheet of paper is created. It is lifted out of the slurry and transferred to a felt. The new paper sheet is 95% water and 5% fiber at that point. The new sheet passes over a Yankee drier where hot air blows through a very large steel cylinder with holes. This fluffs up the sheet so that it has better characteristics of softness and absorbency. At the end of the line, voilà! There is a 102.5” roll of tissue just waiting to be rewound and cut into the consumer sized rolls with which we are all familiar.
Depending on the papermaker’s recipe, virgin pulp may be added to this process to enhance strength and prevent it from crumbling when wet in your hand or to improve the paper’s characteristic softness or absorbency. When producing colored tissues or diapers, a papermaker may add dyes or super-absorbers, resins that absorb 100 times their weight in liquid. The whiter white the tissue appears, the more likely it is to contain considerable virgin pulp. If you look carefully at Charmin or Bounty and compare those sheets of tissue with toweling and tissue you find in an airport bathroom, you will see the extreme differences between virgin and lower-end recycled tissues.
The charm in knowing this is when you are filling out your tax returns or when someone, like an attorney, is asking you uncomfortable questions and writing down what you say. Deep down inside, you know someone will be reusing that paper very soon and recycling those questions and answers in a very appropriate way.