Following the paper trail of what happens to your recycling

01/06/2012 12:00 AM

01/06/2012 10:28 AM

The paper and cardboard in your recycling, including the newspaper where this column appears, ends up in party plates, the biscuit package you smack against the counter or the canister with neatly stacked potato chips.

And it starts in central Kansas.

Several weeks ago, we showed you the sorting process for single-stream recycling. Then we followed a literal paper trail to follow the recycling process. It led us less than 6 miles from the Stutzman sorting facility to the Sonoco paper mill in Hutchinson. There, manager Jim Kicklighter showed us how they take loose paper from your home, and cardboard boxes carrying shipments to Wal-Marts and Dillons around the area, and make it into paperboard that ends up returning to the stores for you to use again.

Kicklighter compares the process to making a milkshake. You follow a recipe: add so much newsprint, office paper and mixed paper to so much cardboard and put it in a blender with lots of water. The Sonoco pulper is 14 feet wide, but Kicklighter said you could do it on a smaller scale in a blender in your home. Kids, get permission from your parents before you go shoving cardboard into the kitchen blender — especially you, dad.

“It’s a great Cub Scout (or Girl Scout) project,” Kicklighter said.

Watch a video that compresses the two-hour process to 2½ minutes:

What comes out of Hutchinson goes into making the cardboard cores for paper towels and toilet paper rolls. It goes into oatmeal containers and gift boxes and Pringle’s containers.

Some the material benefits Kansas companies.

It goes to Leavenworth help make paper plates for Hallmark.

The Kansas mill also used its recycled fiber to develop outer liners for coffee cups, so the coffee won’t burn your hands. Those are now manufactured by Georgia Pacific, which is owned by Wichita-based Koch Industries.

In Hutchinson, recycling paper is a 100-year-old project. The Sonoco plant operates out of some of the same buildings that opened around 1910, where women in long dresses would work to fashion egg cartons out of straw and what was leftover from the local wheat crop.

Today, about 310 tons of paper and cardboard material comes into the Sonoco plant each day to make about 300 tons of paperboard. That’s 100,000 tons of recycled paper a year that would otherwise go into the landfill.

“There’s about a 7 to 10 percent shrinkage rate,” Kicklighter said.

It takes water — about 300,000 gallons a day — to process all the paper. But even that is recycled.

“We reprocess that water over and over and over again,” he said. “It comes from our own wells. Years and years ago, that aquifer was 60 feet. It’s still 60 feet.”

Industrial uses in account for less than 12 percent of water from the Equus Beds in Reno County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“It’s sustainable and economical — two of my favorite words,” said Kicklighter.

Kicklighter considers himself “ultra-conservative” when it comes to his personal politics. But the chemical engineer has no problem with words such as “sustainable.”

“To me, sustainability is simply the best and highest use of a resource,” he said. “People don’t realize trees are a renewable resource. No one complains about cutting down a stalk of corn. Trees just take 20 or 30 years to renew themselves. But it you manage your forests correctly, then it doesn’t hurt anything.”

The work of the Hutchinson mill’s 118 employees gives trees more time to grow, making the industry more efficient.

“To me, what it’s really about is giving as much value out of something that you can,” Kicklighter said, “and getting as much use out of it as you can before you send it to the landfill.”

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