All Commentary
Friday, February 1, 1991

Freedom of the (Printing) Press

Mr. Coulter is a senior at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, where he is majoring in political science and philosophy. He has served as editor-in-chief of the Grove City College Collegian.

Freedom of the press is coming under a new attack in the United States. The threat is of an economic nature, and is rooted in sincere, seemingly harmless, environmental concerns. But if present trends continue, the results could have a devastating effect on press freedom.

Several states recently enacted laws requiring newspapers to use varying amounts of recycled paper. Other states are considering similar measures. The California law, passed in 1989, mandates that, beginning in 1991, 25 percent of newsprint purchased by publishers contain at least 40 percent of old newspaper print (ONP). This rate increases incrementally until the turn of the century when 50 percent of purchases must contain 40 percent of ONP. The Connecticut law, passed in 1990, is even tougher. It mandates that by 1993, 20 percent of newspaper that is consumed will have to be recycled. This rate will reach 90 percent by 1998. Several bills have been introduced in Congress that would require newspaper publishers to use certain percentages of recycled newsprint, while other bills would amend the tax code so that publishers who don’t use recycled newsprint are penalized.

To avoid mandatory recycling, some newspapers have “volunteered” to purchase certain amounts of newsprint containing ONP. Agreements have been reached in Wisconsin and New York, stating that publishers will buy recycled newsprint if it is of a certain quality and price. This shifts the burden to the newsprint producers and says, in effect, that the newspaper industry can work toward recycling without government requirements.

The economics of newsprint recycling are formidable. There are 62 newsprint plants in North America (21 in the United States and 41 in Canada), but only nine are equipped for using old newspaper print. These nine plants can produce only 13 percent of industry capacity. Moreover, it costs approximately $100 million to retool a plant so it can make quality newsprint containing a high percentage of recycled fibers, or up to $500 million to build a new plant. Most of these plants are located near logging operations, while most ONP is available near highly populated urban centers.

Without legislative inducements, approximately 1/3 of newsprint is recycled. Old newspaper print is used for tissue, cereal boxes, construction paper, construction board, and cellulose insulation. Entrepreneurs have made use of the plethora of old newspaper and converted it into useful and profitable products, without government coercion. Legislative efforts may disrupt these established markets for ONP.

Therefore, measures requiring newspaper publishers to use a particular type of newsprint yield small environmental gains at very high costs. Landfills will fill up slightly more slowly, and fewer trees will be cut for newsprint, but the costs are much greater. Newsprint producers would have to make large capital investments to gain the capability to recycle. In addition to capital investment, ONP must be purchased and transported to the plants. Also, existing markets for ONP could be unsettled. The additional costs will be passed on to newspaper publishers, which could further hurt the troubled newspaper market.

Even if we disregard the economic costs involved with the mandated use of recycled newsprint, we should oppose such initiatives because they are an illegitimate intrusion into the activities of the press. Thomas Jefferson asserted, “Our liberty depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” This statement still rings true.

1.   “Waste Disposal Crisis Fuels Surge of Interest in Recycling,” Pulp and Paper Journal, January 1990, p. 46.

2.   “State, Federal Governments Focus on Recycling,” Presstime, March 1990, p. 60.

3.   R. Dellinger, V. Horton, and D. Snow, “Waiting for the ONP Market to Improve,” Waste Age, June 1990, p. 105.

4.   G. Pierre Goad, “Recycling Siren Lures Newsprint Makers,” The Wall Street Journal, November 10,1989.

5.   Alex S. Jones, “Newsprint Gamble Proving Costly,” The New York Times, April 21, 1990.

6.   Pat Guy, “Publishers Push Papers to Recycle,” USA Today, October 6,1989.

7.   “Waiting . . . ,” p. 106.