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The floating forest

Recyclable paper from the United States travels halfway around the world—only to end up, transformed, back on our retail shelves. Welcome to the weird world of wastepaper.



In 1990, a year when the American appetite for industrial resources was fixed in the direction of the Persian Gulf, a woman named Cheung Yan moved from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. Cheung was born in 1957 in northern China. She came to Hong Kong by way of the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, the country's first "special economic zone"—an early laboratory in the Chinese capitalist experiment. Cheung worked there as an accountant; after she'd saved some money, she formed a business in Hong Kong, with two partners, to ship wastepaper within China. She was encouraged by an older acquaintance who worked at a paper mill in the north. "Wastepaper," he told her, "is a forest." Cheung would relate that story in profiles in both the New York Times and the New Yorker, published in 2007 and 2009, respectively—not long after that the success of her friend's advice had turned Cheung into the world's richest woman.

China had stripped its actual forests when it industrialized, quickly and violently, during the Great Leap Forward, so the country wasn't a productive source of the raw materials needed for papermaking. Because of the historical scarcity of wood pulp, paper produced domestically was high in vegetable content—straw, reed, and bagasse, a sugarcane or sorghum by-product—that's not easily recycled; and anyway, the practice wasn't widespread in China. Cheung sought a bigger pond; so, for that matter, did the country at large. As its economy developed, China's demand for all manner of scrap, paper included, grew. Chinese factories have grown exponentially hungrier for garbage that they can repurpose and put, in some new form, back on the market. Paper mills in China churn wastepaper into containerboard, which packages Chinese-made products—iPhones, to pick a prominent example—whose destination is the United States.

The United States was Cheung's bigger pond: the source of the scrap and the promise of new life for it. Cheung's move to LA coincided with the beginning of an economic era pregnant with alchemical symbolism. The U.S. sheds the garbage that China turns to gold for resale, traveling more than 10,000 miles on a round-trip journey back to our retail shelves.

Cheung persuaded a Taiwanese former dentist to take the trip overseas with her; she married him when they got here. In California the two formed the company America Chung Nam (America South China), driving up and down the coast of California in search of vendors willing to sell them wastepaper, which they'd ship back across the Pacific. America Chung Nam grew so vigorously that by 2001 it was the largest exporter of freight, by volume, in the United States. By then Cheung had moved back to China and founded Nine Dragons Paper, which by the 2000s would grow into China's largest papermaking company. With both a U.S. paper exporter and a Chinese paper importer in her stable, Cheung would be celebrated in the Chinese media in 2006 as the richest person in the country. By 2007 the Times reported that she was "richer than virtually any other woman anywhere in the world," including, the paper pointed out, Oprah, on whose show Cheung once appeared. Cheung is known in China as the "Queen of Trash." And her Kingdom of Trash had become the world's most prominent recycler of wastepaper—if not overnight then something close to it. Scrap fills the hulls of China-bound ships that, after making their deposits in the U.S., would otherwise return empty. "These containers have to get back to China," says Jon Johnson, the manager of Manistique Papers, a mill in Upper Michigan. "They fill 'em up with scrap metal, scrap paper, hay—anything they can get their hands on." Rates are so low that it costs less to ship a container of wastepaper from Seattle to China than it does to ship it from Seattle to Portland.

That's one weird effect of the new transnational wastepaper trade: the constant demand for paper in China has reduced the availability of wastepaper domestically, driving up prices for mills that process recycled paper. The way that paper is consumed has upended, too. In the United States, the print media simply print less—consumption of newsprint and office paper has dropped over the past decade. In China it's risen. Two mills in the midwest that used to subsist on newsprint no longer do. It's a nebulous market.

Some mills are closing. Blue Heron Paper, in Oregon, shuttered in 2011, though not before trying to face bankruptcy by cutting its newsprint line in favor of "a new product line of environmentally friendly commercial toweling grades." Grays Harbor mill, in Hoquiam, Washington, closed in 2011 and will soon reopen under new ownership. At the end of September Catalyst Paper will close its recycling mill in Snowflake, Arizona. Manistique Papers, the mill Johnson oversees, almost went out of business too.

Manistique is a very small town situated atop Lake Michigan. If you departed Chicago by boat and sailed in a straight line, you might end up there. Manistique Papers processes recycled paper, and for a long time its chief product was newsprint, which it made for papers including the Sun-Times. The closest town to Manistique that's of any significant size is Escanaba, about 50 miles away, which has its own paper mill. This one processes timber, though, for which one industrial by-product is what's referred to as "black liquor": leftovers that create an acrid smell that blows away from the mill. People who have spent time near that sort of paper mill will recognize its characteristic odor, which may account for Manistique, which is roughly equidistant from the Wisconsin border and the Mackinac Bridge, being the finer-smelling tourist destination of the two.

Though Manistique would come to be implicated in the "wastepaper forest" that Cheung went in search of—that is, in the globalized scrap-paper trade—its previous arboreal associations were less metaphorical. In the late 1880s the local timber industry was concentrated 40 miles from Manistique in Seney, a logging town situated along a railroad line and a tortuous river. Logs floated downriver from Seney to the port at Manistique, where they were shipped throughout the Great Lakes. The area was the site of departure for the schooner the Rouse Simmons—the "Christmas tree ship" of lore—which disappeared into stormy Lake Michigan in 1912, en route to Chicago, laden with a few thousand evergreens that its operators planned to sell off the docks at Clark Street. According to one history, witnesses to the Rouse Simmons's departure said that it sailed off looking "like a floating forest."

Lumber declined—virgin wood ran out by the end of the century—and other economies emerged. One developing industry bore a more remote connection to the forest, opening a chasm between the raw material and the new finished product—paper—that would continue to widen, a hundred years later, with the international economy.

Manistique is close to water and timber resources, and accessible by rail from Minneapolis—notable characteristics when, in the early 1900s, the publisher of the Minneapolis Tribune, W.J. Murphy, was looking for a newsprint supplier and decided to build one there. Construction finished on Manistique Pulp and Paper Company in 1920, and the mill continued to produce newsprint for most of the 20th century, switching briefly in the 1940s to supply corrugated cardboard for the World War II effort. The mill changed hands a couple of times over the next few decades, and in 1959 it was sold to Field Enterprises, which published the Sun-Times and the Daily News. In 1981 Marshall Field V took full ownership of the plant, which he renamed Manistique Papers Inc.

Since the two Fields eras the mill changed hands again, and was most recently under control of the Wheeling-based Remark Paper Company, which purchased the plant in 2006. Last August—following a decade that was rough, to put it mildly, on print media and the paper industry—Manistique Papers ceased production and filed for bankruptcy.

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