What Spitballs Teach Us About Recycling, and Why it Matters


Image credit: lukelukeluke, used under Creative Commons license.

Lloyd once famously declared that recycling is bullsh*t. But this was more to make the case for waste reduction and reuse, than to argue against recycling as a better alternative to throwing stuff away. The fact is that recycling has huge benefits for the environment—and that lesson can be learned through some surprising examples. Take your average rebellious kid, for example. Chances are they know a thing or two about spitballs. And spitballs can teach us an awful lot about recycling. This little nugget of insight comes to us via Frank Locantore of the Better Paper Project. As part of his organizations' campaign to help the magazine industry embrace recyled paper, he's been thinking a lot about the benefits of recycling. And, he argues, the experience of making spitballs is a lot like recycling:

If you weren't the seventh grader who chewed up paper and got it all pulpy with your saliva before doing something nefarious with it, then you most certainly remember those kids. These same kids would never think of making a spitball by chewing on a tree log - it takes way too much energy and could require mixing some hazardous chemicals with their saliva. Like middle school spitballs, making recycled paper uses less energy and water (saliva) and requires fewer tree parts and is better for the environment than making paper exclusively from trees.

But this is far from an idle observation. With paper industry claims proliferating that recycled content should go mainly into print and writing paper, not magazines; that we have reached "peak fiber" (the point where we are using all recyclable and recoverable paper); and that recycling uses more fossil fuels than making virgin paper, it's time, says Frank, to push back. The fact is that there is a big difference between using all the paper we collect, and using all the paper that we could collect. And, he continues, the argument about using more fossil fuels is also a false one:

Let's be frank, recycled paper does use more fossil fuels than virgin fiber paper because the energy is purchased from the electricity grid. But that doesn't mean that virgin fiber paper uses less energy - they just use a different type of fuel. So, the question should be: which uses more total energy, and which process has a negative effect on our climate?

Virgin paper manufacture, on the other hand, relies heavily on burning biomass and black liquor, both of which emit serious pollutants, and they also increase pressure for logging mature trees. With substantial evidence that recycled paper manufacture uses less total energy than recycled, says Locatore, the fossil fuel argument is a red herring.

This doesn't mean, of course, that recycling can't get better. From embracing renewables to exploring localized, closed-loop paper recycling, there are plenty of opportunities for improvement. But this should not be framed as a choice between virgin paper or recycled, but rather as a call to make recycling even better, and to seek to move toward zero waste and 100% renewables as soon as possible.

Head on over to the Better Paper Project for the full argument on the benefits of recycled paper in magazines. And if you were one of those kids, uou'll be glad to know that those misspent years in school were not wasted after all.

Disclosure: I worked with Frank Locatore on the original branding for the Better Paper Project.
More on Recycling
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Local Paper for London: Exploring Localized Recycling
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Tags: Energy Efficiency | Recycling | United States | Zero Waste