Remember that idea of the paperless office?  It hasn’t happened and probably won’t.  Paper is just too useful for us to have less of it, it seems.

Peter runs a commercial cleaning business and picks up 50 to 70 bags of paper a day, which he drops off at the transfer station.  He wants to know if there’s a way that offices could break down the paper to be reused or disposed of.

I got in touch with Waikato University’s Dr. Eva Collins, who co-wrote a recent report on the sustainability practices of New Zealand businesses.

One of the key reasons the university team went to companies individually to query their sustainability practices was that New Zealand companies do not produce sustainability reports, lagging behind the international trend.  Dr. Collins says that 80% of Japanese companies produce some type of sustainability report, and in the UK 71% - “but in NZ we found that only 11% of companies report.”

They conducted focus groups, and interviews and surveyed 519 businesses. Overall they found that businesses are undertaking more sustainable practices, and not because of any pressure to do so.

The report showed that overall, businesses have adopted more sustainable practices because managers personally see it as the ‘right’ thing to do.  Recycling was the most common environmental practice (70%), and paper was the most commonly recycled material.

However, many participants talked about frustrations and barriers with recycling and wanted to be able to do more.  These included workers putting items in the wrong bins, and the difficulty of finding an affordable recycling service.

Other businesses were having difficulty just getting paper sorted.  One focus group participant described the problem of several small businesses sharing the same building but being unable to leverage their cumulative size to institute effective recycling.  “If there was an accessible service for which we could pay a modest fee, we would pay.  I’m sure the other businesses in the building have the same set of values as we have, just from my conversations with them about paper recycling.  But no single one of us has been able to organise something that would work for all of us.”

What goes around

Wayne Schache, general manager of Carter Holt Harvey–Fullcircle, says the company is New Zealand’s only true national provider of waste paper collection and processing services. 

He wouldn’t tell me how much paper is collected – this is commercially sensitive – but did say the mills consume or recycle over 200,000m of paper per annum.  Recycled paper is used in the production of packaging, such as cardboard boxes.  Overseas it may get recycled into packaging or newsprint.

New Zealand has one of the highest rates in the world of recovering packaging materials – “But you can never recycle enough paper.  There are still significant volumes of paper being landfilled each year, some of which would be recoverable.”

According to Christchurch City Council, its residents throw away far too much paper into the landfill.  Paper represents a whopping 21% of the total waste stream.

“The crazy thing about paper breaking down in the landfill is it creates methane gas.  Burying paper and cardboard results in the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere which contributes to climate change.  Carbon emissions from the breakdown of paper, cardboard, and organic matter in the landfill amount to the emissions of 33,000 cars each year,” they say on their website, adding that by recycling paper you help look after the environment.  “Processing recycled paper is faster and less expensive than growing trees for paper.”

In addition to Fullcircle, there is also Paper Reclaim, which says they are the largest privately owned recycling company in the country.  They collect and process cardboard, waste paper, glass, and plastic for recycling but, as the name suggests, specialise in recyclable paper such as computer paper, business forms, office paper, highly sensitive documents cardboard cartons, and newspapers – the sort of stuff Peter hauls away.

Paper Reclaim says that around 80% of the waste generated in an office is paper.  They currently handle in excess of 250 tonnes of recyclables per day. (Obviously not worried about commercially sensitive aspects, these chaps.)

They supply folders or trays which can be placed on desks and makes it easy for the paper to be popped into.  This is then emptied into a larger bin – and they suggest keeping this next to the office photocopier.

Upon arrival at their Penrose processing plant, the material is sorted to remove contaminants and then compacted into high-density bales.  This is then sold to paper makers locally or internationally. 

Back up the ponies

Yet there is a limit to how many times paper can be recycled, as the fibres become weaker through the process.  Experts say paper can only be recycled four to six times.  So we need to be a little proactive and think of other uses.   

There are always things to be done with shredded paper.  Last year a staff member at Waikato University wanted to do something with the shredded paper her office generated.  She took it to her local vet club who, after lining their animal cages, passed it on to the SPCA who gave it to Hamilton Zoo.  In the wild, chimpanzees use leaves, branches, and the like to build their bedtime nests.  In Hamilton, zookeepers place fresh paper shreddings, straw, old sheets, and a branch of two in their enclosure, for them to pick and make their own ideal bed.

The chimps go through about 12 garbage bags of shredded paper a week, most of which come from medical labs.  But the SPCA and schools drop off the paper when they have it.  The zoo, its spokesperson said, could always use more.

Myself, I’ve been known to use shredded paper in my henhouse as nesting material, when I haven’t been able to get straw.