Change and opportunity

Features - Industry Leaders Q&A

Kevin Duncombe, president of Western Pacific Pulp & Paper, discusses the state of the recovered paper market and the future of the recycling industry.

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Kevin Duncombe’s recycling career began in 1984 at a company that bought and sold new misprint and used boxes. He worked in the accounting department while studying for his Master of Business Administration, but he soon started purchasing boxes for resale. “That led to working with a recycler in Chicago who eventually brought me on board to broker recyclables,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Western
Pacific Pulp & Paper

In 1990, Duncombe answered a job posting from Western Pacific Pulp & Paper, headquartered in Downey, California. The recycling company had an office in Chicago at that time, but when he inquired about the position, it already had been filled. Western Pacific, however, still wanted to bring Duncombe onboard for a position in Los Angeles. “I went out there during one of those blistery Chicago days, took the job and have been there ever since.”

Duncombe became president of Western Pacific in 1997 after being promoted to vice president and general manager in 1994. “I always enjoyed working here, and my belief in our company and our team led me to buy the company a couple years ago,” he says.

Established in 1983, Western Pacific is an independent recycler processing more than 15,000 tons of recyclables monthly at locations in Downey; Oakland, California; and Las Vegas. The company says it is equipped to serve large and small businesses, offering brokerage services, a full-service traffic department, company-owned collection equipment and certified weighmasters and scales. Western Pacific also boasts solid domestic and international partnerships with processors and mills.

Duncombe says Western Pacific’s approach to business is simple: Do what’s best for suppliers and customers. He adds, “That, in turn, will be in our best interests.”

In the following interview, Duncombe discusses the evolution of the recovered paper market and extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation and offers his outlook into what’s in store for the recycling industry.

Recycling Today (RT): How would you describe the state of the recovered paper market now compared with when you started your career?

Kevin Duncombe (KD): In many ways it is simpler because we move fewer grades. When I started, we were making mill-specific packs for many customers; but, today, it is pretty much the standard grades and [a lot less] of those grades.

The state of the recovered paper market still rests on supply and demand. Demand surely has grown, but supply has been more affected by the changes in our usage of paper. Overall, I believe it is more stable with more reliable players, which is a good thing.

As the industry adjusts to the many changes in packaging and online buying, I see it as only creating more opportunities for recyclers.

RT: What is Western Pacific’s philosophy when it comes to business?

KD: Our philosophy is to simply do what is best for our suppliers and customers and that, in turn, will be in our best interests. We want to focus on those services we feel we are the best at and provide them in a professional manner.

RT: How has Western Pacific been affected by the ongoing transportation and/or export issues we’ve seen across the industry?

KD: We have been affected with higher transportation costs and slower movement, which leads to higher inventory levels as well as higher labor costs just to manage the bookings.

Bookings seem to change with little or no notice, and we end up having to return empties, change [shipping] lines and other things that result in higher costs.

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RT: Other than the obvious supply chain and transportation issues, what are some of the biggest challenges facing the recovered paper market and the recycling industry? How is Western Pacific addressing them?

KD: I believe that EPR legislation could change the landscape for our industry, and the pressure to change our packaging, particularly single-use plastics, also will have an impact. I don’t see either of those greatly affecting my company in any great manner, but they will impact the industry.

With that in mind, some of the challenges we face are more complex packaging products and the continued changes in consumer habits, like fewer newspapers and magazines, for instance.

We work to address these changes by improving our reach and the services we can offer.

RT: Western Pacific typically processes 15,000 tons of recyclables monthly. How have the pandemic and greater supply chain issues affected these numbers, if at all?

KD: Obviously during the pandemic—mostly during 2020—things slowed down to a crawl. We are grateful we made it through, and our volumes have returned to prepandemic levels. Pending further national crises, I see the next year or two being good years for our volumes.

The supply chain issues have a greater impact on our outbound volume but less so on the inbound. Some suppliers have generated less material as their businesses deal with supply chain issues but not to any great extent.

RT: What potential bright spots do you see for the recycling industry?

KD: I think any new capacity is a bright spot, and there seems to be a steady list of new projects in the works, many of which are in the U.S.

I also see that many more suppliers seem to have a better understanding of what it takes to make their recycling programs work. It is not just about the price anymore, but about providing a service that makes their programs successful and sustainable with a fair price that is discussed in a very transparent manner.

RT: Have you seen any noteworthy trends in the industry as of late?

KD: I think the changes in the way people are seeing single-use plastics and plastics recycling in general are very noteworthy. There is still a lot of misinformation out there, and until the facts become reality, we will continue to see changes that may not make sense, both for our industry and the environment.

RT: EPR legislation has been a hot topic recently—what are your views on how this could either help or hurt the industry?

KD: Overall, the more products that come into the stream and can be actually used for recycling is a good thing, but I see the battle of who pays for what and how it gets done resulting in some negative impacts to our industry. If it truly is recyclable and the economics work, the industry will get it done.

I think we will see much more EPR legislation coming, and coming rather quickly. And one positive effect may be that producers will have to be honest about what is recyclable and not just say it over and over and then it will be true.

Many EPR policies aim to increase recycling but at the same time reduce the volume of packaging. I think both of those can be positive impacts on our industry if handled correctly.

The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at mmcnees@gie.net.