The world is on a spending spree, and no matter what you’re buying, it’s probably going to have been in a box at some point along its route to you.
This means that companies rush to create pulp mills or box factories in order to satisfy demand. Many of these are located in the United States. About 40 billion boxes—equal to 407 billion square feet, which is roughly the size of Switzerland —were shipped in the U.S. in 2020, surpassing the previous record from 1999 set amidst a hot economy and burgeoning e-commerce. According to the Fibre Box Association, this year’s record is expected to be broken. Box shipments increased 3.9% in the first nine months 2021 compared to 2020.
But making paper products is a smelly operation, and as more box factories expand into U.S. neighborhoods, there’s come a pushback from people who don’t want to be downwind of an American manufacturing revival.
In South Carolina, three groups of plaintiffs filed lawsuits this summer against New-Indy, a company that converted a paper mill to make containerboard, saying the conversion has made the air dangerous and unhealthy; the state received more than 17,000 complaints of noxious odors from citizens near the New-Indy plant in the first half of this year, which it calls “an unprecedented number.”
New York state fined a Niagara Falls paper mill $375,000 in September for “intolerable odors” that it said impacted the health of the surrounding neighborhood, especially in the summer; the mill, Cascades Containerboard Packaging, agreed to spend millions of dollars in equipment upgrades. According to the mill, the smell is caused by sludge that the plant produces when it processes recycled paper into cardboard. This was done in order to satisfy higher boxes demand.
And in Kalamazoo, Mich., residents filed a lawsuit against paperboard maker Graphic Packaging International after they say the company started production on a machine that would increase output by 500,000 tons a year; the residents say the mill has “discharged discrete and offensive noxious odors, air particulates, and fugitive dust” into the air.
These factories can emit strong odors, and are located in neighborhoods of people of color. They have been rezoned to avoid industrial zones by zoning laws. A study that was published in April found that Americans are most likely to be exposed to industrial pollutants in America’s communities of color. ScienceAdvances.
Shopping changed by the pandemic
These complaints are part of the reversed trend that has been occurring in the U.S. for a while. This long-standing trend saw US paper mills close down due to declining demand. Now, shuttered mills that once printed newspapers and magazines in places like Old Town, Maine and Port Angeles, Wash., are reopening to make pulp and containerboard—the liner and brown paper used to make a cardboard box. New mills are opening all over the country, including in Green Bay (Wisc). Wapakoneta (Ohio) and Henderson (Ky.).
Though e-commerce has long driven an increase in the boxes passing through the average American’s home, until now it had not led to a huge uptick in box production; the boxes being sent to people’s homes were merely in lieu of the boxes carrying goods to brick and mortar stores. That changed with the pandemic.
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“There was this extraordinary shift from spending on services to spending on goods,” says Adam Josephson, a paper and packaging analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets. “Higher purchases of goods leads to higher use of boxes.”
Now, people are buying so much stuff—a record $16.3 trillion in October in the U.S. alone—that there’s more demand for boxes than ever before. According to Fastmarkets RISI which monitors the sector, e-commerce and mail orders use seven times as much corrugated cardboard for every dollar of sales as traditional retail.
The new and updated mills in the U.S.—30 since 2017 by the count of the Northeast Recycling Council—are a boon to efforts to jumpstart American manufacturing and create new jobs in a long dwindling industry. The manufacturing process can also produce hydrogen sulfuride, and other chemicals that smell like rotten egg. Residents in some areas where there are mills, or an increase in production, say the problem is more than stench. They claim that they pollute the air and water at their full capacity.
The downside of ‘Made in America’
Americans have for decades bought products that were made with minerals taken from elsewhere and assembled in distant factories. A growing number of boxes is being manufactured in America, and some Americans now face one of these pitfalls.
“It started as rotten eggs but recently it’s been a sweet port-a-potty, urinal cake smell,” says Kerri Bishop, 34, who runs a Facebook group for people trying to do something about the smell in Catawba, S.C., where the New-Indy mill is located. “I don’t really leave my house—it’s worse when I go outside, and I never know when it’s going to hit,” she says.
Bishop, who moved her family to South Carolina from Rochester, N.Y., in 2016, says that before the conversion, the mill would make the air smell like rotten eggs a few times a year, but it didn’t bother her. New-Indy Containerboard was a joint venture owned by Kraft Group. It purchased the mill and made brown paper to make containerboard. According to the lawsuit, people within 30 miles of the mill complained of strong odors, physical reactions and other symptoms in February 2021.
New-Indy was required to obtain a permit in order to begin making brown paper at this mill. The permit application stated that there would be no significant increase in hydrogen sulfide emissions due to the conversion. This is according to South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control or DHEC. Since February 20,21 the state has received thousands of complaints regarding foul smells. It investigated to find that they were emanating from the mill. It asked New-Indy for details about the current management of the facility’s sludge.
<strong>“It started as rotten eggs, but recently it’s been a sweet port-a-potty, urinal cake smell.”</strong> In accordance with the Clean Air Act, the EPA issued an immediate order to the company in May 2021 requiring it to lower hydrogen sulfide omissions and set up air quality monitoring devices along its fence. But for Bishop and other residents, that’s not enough; the company was only required to install a few monitors, and air quality has not improved since May, she says.
She and other residents blame the odor on something called a steam-stripper, which treats foul condensate; they say that because of the increased volume at the plant, the steam-stripper can’t handle all the waste the company is producing. Bishop suffers from cranial nerve disorders, meaning that the smells can make her feel dizzy, and she starts to see spots.
The rash developed on her youngest son’s face. According to her and other women, the environment agencies have been monitoring the water for toxic chemicals. The wastewater from the mill’s lagoons has been contaminating groundwater. They say that the problem isn’t just the smell, but that the mill is polluting the air, causing nausea, rashes, and other health problems. Other residents say they can’t take their dogs outside when the smell hits, that they can’t sleep at night; one woman says she keeps a gas mask by her bed to wear when the air seems particularly dirty.
New-Indy did not comment on this article.
There’s another reason that there’s a boom in paper mills in the U.S. China stopped accepting recycled material from the U.S. as of 2018. That created an opportunity for paper mills that previously couldn’t compete with China on cost. Recyclable cardboard existed so that mills could be retrofitted and made into new cardboard.
“The Chinese import restrictions changed the recycling equation and spurred a revitalization of the U.S. mill industry,” says Colin Staub, senior reporter at Resource Recycling, who compiled a map of more than two dozen conversions and new mills announced across the U.S. “We’re certainly seeing more interest in buying and opening paper mills.”
China is the world’s largest consumer of paper, consuming 107 millions tons annually. However, it doesn’t have the same amount of trees that could be used for pulp production and a better infrastructure to recycle it. Because of its import restrictions, it cannot import cardboard but pulp. Some Chinese companies are investing in new U.S. pulp mills that will make it possible to export to China. Nine Dragons from China reopened an old mill in Old Town Maine, to produce pulp for export to China. (The mill spilled more than 30,700 gallons of chemicals into the Penobscot River in 2020, violating state and federal laws, causing a rise in the river’s PH level and prompting the Penobscot Nation to advocate for greater stewardship of the river.)
The pulp mills, and containersboard factories that are now opening are more sustainably than those of the past. This is an essential part of the circular economic system in which everything is reused and nothing is thrown out. If there were no mills that recycle cardboard it would just end up going into a landfill.
But the communities hosting these mills often don’t want to have to bear the brunt of our obsession with shopping.
“They’re causing pollution that’s never going to leave; they’re turning their own community into a superfund site,” says Jackie Lane, a marine biologist who lives near an International Paper mill in Cantonment, Fla., that she and others say has long polluted Perdido Bay. A final consent order by the state was issued in May. It stated that International Paper had failed to comply with its wastewater treatment plant permit levels for toxicity on 19 instances between 2015 and 2019. International Paper is subject to $190,000. The state also fined it $10,000 for failing certain water quality testing. Lane calls this a “slap in the face”.
International Paper said in a statement that its monitoring, done in coordination with the state, has shown that the wetlands are “biologically rich and diverse” and that it works closely with the state to preserve the wetlands. International Paper says it employs over 500 people in Alabama and Florida.
Most of the new and improved paper mills are on sites that have long held paper mills—it’s much easier to get the permits and infrastructure on an existing site than to build a new factory. But that’s meant that because of historical zoning practices that located polluting plants near Black neighborhoods, it’s minority neighborhoods who are subject to much of this pollution.
An ex-resident filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights against Kalamazoo, saying that city leaders had discriminated against Black residents when they approved a tax cut that would have allowed Graphic Packaging expansion in an area dominated by Blacks. According to the complaint, the city agreed to remove 721 trees from the site for Graphic Packaging.
Brandi Crawford-Johnson, the plaintiff, also filed a complaint against Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, alleging that it discriminated against a predominantly Black neighborhood when it approved changes to an air permit allowing Graphic Packaging to expand in November of 2020. In November, the EPA’s Civil Rights Compliance Office said that it would investigate this complaint.
“It’s environmental racism,” says Crawford-Johnson, who after moving to the neighborhood was shocked to learn how many of her neighbors had asthma and other health problems.
Graphic Packaging stated in a statement, that although the expansion was not fully functional yet and that it had taken many steps to reduce potential odors over the years. Though it does not comment on pending litigation, the company that there are several other local manufacturers and a city wastewater treatment plant near its operations, and the odors are caused by “a number of complex factors.”
Brunswick, Georgia (55% Black), has been familiar with the smell of rotten eggs coming from a Georgia-Pacific pulpmill for years. But starting in December of 2020, residents started having such severe health reactions to the smell that some called 911 because they couldn’t breathe in their homes, says Rachael Thompson, the executive director of the Glynn Environmental Coalition. “I feel like if this were a Caucasian neighborhood and community, more would be done about it,” one resident who called 911, Spanline Dixon, told Current a news site covering coastal Georgia.
Brunswick, Georgia is the home of four Superfund Sites. The University of Georgia collaborated with the Glynn Environmental Coalition for weather data analysis and to track the upstream source of odor complaints. Thompson states that the study proved there was a clear correlation between the mill’s odors and its production. Since last year, her group received 130 complaints. The only exception was when the mill was temporarily shut down.
A Georgia-Pacific spokesman said, in an email, that the company is aware of the odor complaints and shares the community’s concern. According to the spokesperson, the company works with other stakeholders and the state’s environmental regulator agency in order to find and reduce the source of the smell.
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Tensions between growing demand for paper and the environmental problems that causes aren’t limited to the U.S. In Indonesia, more than 30 community groups sent a letter to Asia Pulp & Paper in August arguing that the mill’s plan to triple pulp production will risk the respiratory health of millions of people. Nova Scotia’s paper industry is suing to reopen the mill, which was closed in 2020 because of concerns from residents about its waste disposal.
One thing’s for sure, says Joshua Martin, director of the Environmental Paper Network—these conflicts are likely to mount as the world consumes more packaging.
The problem isn’t just that mills create bad odors; despite high cardboard recycling rates, trees are still cut down to make packaging—around 3 billion a year, according to EPN. Although cardboard is easier to recycle than other products like plastic, it can only be recycled about 5-7 times before it can’t be used any more. Mixed with virgin pulp, recycled cardboard can be used to create boxes.
The U.S. drives that demand—it consumes 202 kg of paper and paperboard per capita, compared to Africa’s 6 kg per capita, Latin America’s 44 kg per capita, and Asia’s 44 kg per capita, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. “If the entire world used the amount of paper as America currently does, it would be completely unsustainable,” he says.
He believes that the only way to stop this is to shift how we shop for things so that there’s less dependency on packaging and paper. By patronizing companies that use certified packaging by the Forest Stewardship Council, consumers can communicate with them. They can also try Loop brands that deliver grocery in recyclable packaging. Loop collects it back from customers.
Perhaps the easiest solution, though, is to buy less stuff that you’re going to toss soon—disposable coffee cups or takeout packaging or multiple e-commerce orders. “It’s this culture of disposability and single-use, no matter what the product is made from, that needs to change,” he says.
It’s something Kerri Bishop, the South Carolina resident, is taking to heart. Bishop spent her career working in manufacturing and says she didn’t join the class-action lawsuit and didn’t even want the mill to shut down at first. They would just have to upgrade their equipment, she said. Now, though, she’s worried she moved to a state that values manufacturing and jobs more than the quality of life and health of its residents. She’s considering getting a home air filtration system.
She was a regular Amazon customer, but she grew tired of receiving different items in different boxes. She’d heard from a local politician that the New-Indy boxes were being used by Amazon, so she started boycotting the online retailer. Bishop said that she will stop shopping on Amazon in January, despite the fact that prices rose and there were problems with the supply chain.