Ben Sparks ’91 explains the China connection of American newspaper recycling.
Story by Ellen Alperstein / Photo by Robert Durell
In this digital world, news print, curiously, thrives. Yesterday’s newspaper expires, but then it’s reincarnated.
No one appreciates the irony of the Buddhistic proclivities of a dying medium more than Ben
Sparks ’91, who grew up collecting newspapers for his father’s recycling business. Today, as president
of Green Planet Consulting Group, Sparks says the recycling side of his own Oakland, Calif.-
based enterprise is booming thanks to the convergence of population growth in developing countries;
a world disposed toward global trade and resource reuse; and the cost-effectiveness of
China consumes 60 percent of the world’s recovered paper, Sparks says. People in developing
countries are digital media consumers, but population growth fuels hard-copy consumption as well.
Manufacturing powers such as China render the U.S. a net importer of goods, and because ships
delivering stereos and T-shirts to American shores must return, otherwise empty shipping containers
prove ideal for transporting the raw material of recyclables.
Ten of the 20 largest U.S. exporters are recyclers, Sparks says, and 50 percent of all American
exports are recycling and scrap metal. In a video posted on YouTube, Sparks explains that the carbon
emissions produced by one diesel truck hauling a load of newspapers to a mill are more than
that produced by a ship ferrying 7,500 containers across the ocean. And it’s cheap: It costs
$4,000 per container to send stereos to the U.S., but only $350 to ship dead news to China.
With a degree in archeology and anthropology, Sparks considers his current occupation: “I
study much newer trash now.” Here’s how yesterday’s sports section travels to China to be reborn
as next month’s sports section for a reader in Pomona or Punjab.
1. Somebody tosses a used copy of the Los Angeles Times into a recycling bin, the contents of which are collected by municipal workers.
2. Trucks deliver the yield to a recycling center where the paper is separated from other recyclables, and sorted by white, brown (cardboard)
and gray (newsprint), and baled. The bales are taken by truck or rail to the port, where they’re loaded into shipping containers
and stacked by crane onto ships that move 7,000-7,500 such bins across the Pacific Ocean.
3. In China, the bales are off-loaded and moved by truck or rail to a gray paper mill where they are placed onto a conveyor. Baling wire is cut and
the papers are tipped into an 8,000-gallon pulp vat. The material is soaked and CO2 gas is added to remove ink, which bubbles to the surface and is skimmed off.
4. After about 15 minutes, the brew is dissolved into a pulp of 90 percent water and 10 percent paper fiber. A centrifuge cleaner separates out any
remaining paper clips or staples. Then the pulp is sprayed by a series of small jets onto a conveyor belt, rendering a thick, wet sheet of new paper.
5. It moves through a series of 200 pairs of rollers to expel the water, and is wound around a cardboard center into rolls of clean
newsprint measuring 10 feet wide, 8 feet in diameter and weighing 4,500 lbs.
6. The mill ships these rolls to a large publisher—say, China’s People’s Daily
or the Los Angeles Times—or to a middleman who cuts the rolls for smaller
newspapers. The newspaper mounts the rolls onto its presses, where they’re printed, cut, folded and stacked for pickup by circulation
trucks. The news lives anew.