The conversation reproduced here is between Danielle Aubert and the owner of a paper recycling facility in downtown Detroit who provided paper for the Blank Book Series.

× × ×


× × ×

What is your business?
Paper recycling—the separation of paper by fiber.

Ok. What does that mean?
All paper has a warp and a woof. You know how cloth is woven—it has a warp and a woof? It interlocks itself. All genetic material has a warp and a woof, correct?

All cells have something that binds them. So your jacket, your shirt, your socks, your shoes, everything has a warp and a woof. Whatever you tear has fiber—little bristles—those little things that interlock each other. We separate paper by length of fiber. The longer the fiber the more it’s worth, the more times it can be recycled. The more brittle the fiber and the shorter the fiber the less you can do with it. Other than taking glue, the fiber won’t interlock itself. So, the longer the fiber the more times it can be recycled.

So if it’s been recycled already several times, is the fiber shorter?
Sure, it’s shorter and it’s more brittle.

One of the sheets that we have in our blank books is this Rolland-brand paper that’s 100% recycled. It’s made in Canada by a company called Cascades.
The law is that you must have some recycled content in paper. When paper mills make paper it comes off the machine in big rolls. Then they cut it down to different size sheets. The stuff that is cut off is technically ‘recycled’. Because once you’ve cut it—once you’ve trimmed it — it’s ‘used’.

So it’s considered waste.
It’s waste. So they shovel it back into the pot. It’s paper made for the very first time from pulp. So it’s long fiber. Is it “recycled content”? Maybe yes, maybe no. It hasn’t gone through a printer, and it hasn’t gone through a place like me, it’s just ‘recycled’ internally, without even leaving the paper mill. Is it really recycled content? Yes, no. But it’s long fiber.

So that’s what Rolland paper is.
Right. Rolland paper is made from long fiber, because it’s made of off-cuts from paper that were cut off of rolls. Here we sort paper from high to low by color. Unprinted white would be the most valuable, if it’s been printed on it comes down in value. Then you have uncoated white, which is valuable.

Is it possible that some of the paper in our blank books is made of recycled content that came from paper that passed through your facility? I mean, like for example the same paper comes through here twice, but in different forms? Once as, I guess, a longer–fiber sheet and once as a shorter–fiber sheet?
If I would say yes I’d be lying. I’d be glorifying myself and I’d be lying through my teeth.

We—the world—recycle a hundred million pounds of paper a year. Can I say that some of the paper in your books came from here? I could lie and say yes. But it’s very unlikely.
My better chance would be to say that you have a roll of toilet paper in your house that you’re wiping your butt with from here than a brand new piece of paper.

I sell more paper that ends up in toilet paper, napkins, tissues, than I do to the making of new paper.

In our books we have sheets of paper made by a few different companies. I saw that just last month one of them—Neenah Papers—bought Wausau Papers. They’re closing a paper mill in Wisconsin this month. Does that kind of thing—the consolidation of the paper industry— affect you?
Yes. Every time a mill disappears— [mimes shooting himself in the head]

Because those mills are the ones buying the paper from you?
Yes. There used to be 220–240 paper companies all over the world, today there are maybe twenty.

They’re all consolidating.
Right. There also used to be more people like me, there used to be thousands. In the 1970s, when I came to work here, there were forty, fifty places like this. Now there’s basically four of us left.

There are four of you left in Detroit? In the city proper?
Well, in the city proper there’s two. They used to be everywhere though. I told you before, there was an article once written about this industry in a journal.

Oh right, I remember. I looked for it but I couldn’t find it.
It’s there, trust me. It’s about the paper scrap industry of Detroit.

Have you ever thought about moving your business out of Detroit? A lot of companies have left.
No, I haven’t thought about leaving Detroit, why would I? It costs too much to re-locate. The machines here go into holes fourteen feet down. Every hole costs $22,000.

So what’s going on in those holes?
They’re waiting to be filled with paper. Then the machine crushes the paper as it pushes it back up to the surface.

So that’s what the guys out there are always doing, they’re filling the holes with paper.
You gotta fill it up, you gotta make a bundle.

Do you remember the actual paper in our blank books?
Yes! I remember it. Danielle, I know every piece of paper.

Do you remember where it came from?
I told you where it came from! It comes from paper houses and printers. That’s it.

So those uncoated sheets that we picked out for our books, why did you have them set aside in the warehouse? Why not shred them and bundle them, like everything else?
Fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, one hundred-pound paper has a value to me because there are people like you, and other people, who can use it. I save it when it’s unprinted, when it’s on skids, or in boxes.

It’s good paper. It seems like a shame to throw it out.
I’ll hold onto it for x number of months or a year, and if I don’t get rid of it I bail it up. It’s got to go back to the pot anyway.

This is interesting to me because I didn’t think about, or know about, how paper gets circulated this way. When I think about recycled content I think about recycling centers, where you bring your old office paper and stuff like that. But what you have here is on a much bigger scale.
I’m not a bottom feeder. I’m a top feeder. We do paper that goes into the making of new paper, whether it be writing, printing, diapers, whether it’s feminine hygiene products, paper plates, paper cups, tissues, napkins. Collection centers are bottom feeders. They’re bulk grades, newspaper, cardboard, mixed paper. It can go into cardboard, roofing shingles, chip board, packaging. It can go into making itself.

So, one last question—how would you define “scrap”?
Scrap is anything that is discarded. Like old bread—it’s scrap, it’s garbage, but I feed it to the birds. Scrap is anything that’s discarded that someone else can use. Whether it’s food, plastic, glass, paper. But someone else can recycle it to make something new out of it. It’s the ecological circle. We eat the animal, we have a bowel movement, we create fertilizer, grass, plants, the whole nine yards.

Didn’t you have an “I love scrap” sticker somewhere here?
Yes, on my desk. Would you like one? I was at a convention, and you know how there are people there that want to sell junk? I bought some.

I meant to give you a copy of one of the books we made. Would you like one?