Turning Trash into Treasure: Research Reveals $4 Billion Lost from Cardboard, Paper Waste

stacked cardboard and paper waste

(Credit: Unsplash.com)

by | Jan 4, 2024

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Cardboard and paper waste littering landfills across America are not just an environmental eyesore; they also represent a staggering $4 billion in lost economic value, as revealed by a recent analysis conducted by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Lead author Anelia Milbrandt, a senior research analyst in NREL’s Strategic Energy Analysis Center, along with her colleagues Jarett Zuboy, Kamyria Coney, and Alex Badgett, detailed their findings in a research paper titled Paper and Cardboard Waste in the United States: Geographic, Market, and Energy Assessment, published in the journal Waste Management Bulletin.

The Scale of the Issue

The analysis, based on data from 2019, is part of a series of studies aimed at shedding light on the materials clogging the nation’s landfills. Prior studies by Milbrandt and Badgett focused on food waste and plastic waste. The overarching goal is to provide insights to policymakers for sustainable waste management and to help researchers gauge the potential impact of new waste-management technologies.

According to Zuboy, a markets and policy analyst at the Strategic Energy Analysis Center, “Improved strategies for managing paper and cardboard waste can provide substantial energy, environmental, and economic benefits. To realize these benefits, it’s important to characterize the waste resource comprehensively.”

The study meticulously maps the distribution of landfilled cardboard and paper waste. Of the estimated 110 million metric tons of paper and cardboard waste generated across the United States in 2019, approximately 56% ended up in landfills, while 38% was recycled, and the remainder was incinerated. This waste category constitutes about a quarter of municipal solid waste, encompassing items such as newspapers, magazines, books, paper plates, cardboard packaging, junk mail, and more.

“The U.S. is one of the world’s top waste producers, and most of it goes to landfills. The energy and resource values of materials put into landfills are lost. We can do better if we want to achieve a circular economy,” Milbrandt highlighted.

The analysis identifies “hot spots,” areas with significant potential to divert paper and cardboard waste from landfills, sparking investments to recover their technical and economic value.

Notably, the Southeastern United States recorded the highest percentage of landfilled paper and cardboard waste at about 25%, with Florida and Tennessee reaching up to 30% of their municipal solid waste originating from this category.

Economic and Environmental Impact

“Paper and cardboard waste are among the many things that are used but not used up,” Zuboy said.

The researchers estimated the market value of landfilled waste using three-year national average prices for recovered post-consumer paper and cardboard, reaching a staggering $4 billion. This amount closely matches what communities spent on landfilling these materials. Additionally, the embodied energy required to manufacture these waste products accounted for 9% of what the entire U.S. industrial sector used in 2019.

The researchers conducted a comprehensive bottom-up analysis, covering 1,776 active landfills and 85 combustion facilities across the United States, to trace the journey of paper and cardboard waste. Landfills are typically located near population centers, but in some cases, waste travels long distances.

For instance, trash from New York City can end up in landfills in Virginia and South Carolina. Lower tipping fees in rural areas often make this transportation economically viable.

In addition to the economic losses and energy consumption associated with landfilling paper and cardboard, it contributes to methane emissions, waste-disposal fees, deforestation, and local environmental issues. However, this waste category can be addressed through various strategies, including reuse, recycling, composting, and energy recovery, mitigating the negative impacts of landfilling.

Funded by the DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office, this research underscores the urgent need to rethink waste management practices. NREL, as the primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development, is at the forefront of efforts to transform trash into treasure, driving the country closer to a sustainable, circular economy.

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