Saturday, 21 December 2013

Merry Christmas paper/cards

I love colour and brightness at Christmas. I love the cheery lights and shiny decorations; my beloved loves to poke at his presents under their wrappings to see what they might be (he's even older than me but adults can have fun too) and let's not forget the Christmas cards, a great miscellany of different kinds of pictures - do you try to guess the sender from their choice of picture, before you open them up? But those cards, and the wrapping paper, and also the extra packaging that comes with the presents, and the chocolates, boxes of mince pies... it all adds up. A writer for the Mail collected up her household's rubbish on Christmas day and filled 6 refuse sacks and a dozen cardboard boxes. Not all of this was paper, of course, but a lot of it is.

At least it doesn't all end up in landfill. Paper is organic so any that can't be recycled can be turned into compost, or perhaps formed into logs to fuel your stove, or go to an energy from waste power station. However, recycling is good, because it saves energy: it takes only half as much energy to make paper from recycled material than from virgin wood. You can recycle paper and card a few times before the fibres get too short and then you can compost it or burn it.

I had a tour of a recycled paper mill last week: Palm Paper 's PM7 at Kings Lynn (courtesy of Cambridge Recycling Champions). It is a very modern plant, completed in 2010 - though parts of it could not be described as shiny and clean as paper makes a lot of dust. Also it is absolutely enormous - it generates rolls of paper 10.6 m wide and it runs at up to 70 mph. Most of it is completely automated: we saw two people in the control room monitoring complicated status displays and three other people: one driving the loader which shifts paper onto the conveyor belt at the start, one man with a broom (I did say some parts were dusty, didn't I?) and one man hitting buttons to control the paper rolls.

Our tour covered the whole process: once the paper is loaded onto the conveyor it goes into a series of chemical processes which break it up into fibres and remove the ink, leaving clean pulp. Then there is more mechanical processing as the pulp is spread out thinly between formers, water extracted first by vacuum pressure and then by pressing and then heat, and rolled up into enormous rolls. Then the big rolls are sliced into more manageable sizes as required by the customer (but still several meters on a side) and wrapped up by robots. Here are some pictures (sorry the first one is a bit blurred).

Waste paper coming into the plant: this bit was the dustiest part of the whole process.

Tanks where paper is mixed with water and boron silicate to encourage the fibres to separate
The plant was enormous and all the workings were hidden. I think this might have been the vacuum extraction bit.

Rolls of paper, beautifully white and smooth, cut to size for delivery, ready to be wrapped

One of the robots that wraps the rolls of paper. This one is sticking the end pieces in the roll. It loads up the disks on each side and then they get pressed on like ear muffs. We were all fascinated by these machines, their dexterity and weirdly graceful movements.

Looking at this plant really brought it home to me the importance of quality in paper recycling. All paper is not equal, not just because of the actual paper but also to do with contamination. This plant makes newsprint and it only takes source separated waste, mainly office waste (though even so we saw some of the input had plastic crisp packets and other things mixed in). I asked our guide, Jonathon Easthope, about the cellophane windows in envelopes and sticky tape you often get - he said small amounts were OK but they did tend to clog the filters at the fibre separation stage which could be a problem. Also grease from things like pizza boxes would affect the quality and even tiny bits of glass would damage the machinery. If you think about how thin paper is, even small bits of glass will poke through the surface and this will damage the newspaper printing presses as well as the paper making machines. They have a camera which automatically photographs any defects larger than 0.2 mm - if there are too many they have to stop the line. Newsprint has to be good quality because the printers run very fast. The paper has to run smoothly through the machinery and it must take the ink quickly and evenly.

I have mentioned before that good quality waste paper is worth twice the norm (What is your recycled waste worth?). This mill needs 450,000 tonnes per year and sometimes it has to get it from other parts of Europe because there isn't enough good stuff in the UK. Here in Cambridge we used to have a kerbside collection of separate boxes for paper, glass and tins but now it all gets mixed up in our blue wheelie bins* - if you want your paper to go to a better home then take it to one of the recycling centres with dedicated paper bins.

Personally I send most people e-cards rather than paper ones, even though they are not nearly so much fun. It is one concession I make for a more sustainable holiday. After all, when I pick a card I don't think about decorating my friend's house, I think about showing them I am thinking of them. All I want is to wish for them a good holiday with lots of fine food and good friends and a healthy and happy year in 2014 - as I wish for you too.


Happy Christmas everyone

See also my previous Christmas theme posts: On Christmas Lights, Christmas Electricity Demand and Christmas Trees and Lights

* The boxes were heavy to carry and took up a lot of space - the mixed bins encourage people to recycle more even though the waste is worth less.

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