What Happens to our Paper Recycling?

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

Today, in our “what happens to our waste” series, we will be exploring paper. Often thought of as the holy grail of environmentally-friendly packaging...but is it really? Let’s find out.

If you missed the first three videos in this series, I encourage you to check them out (plastic blog, plastic video, metal blog, metal video, glass blog, and glass video). I wanted to start this series after seeing so much plastic in the ocean and wondering why the heck does it end up there instead of being recycled. We quickly found out why. I also want to explore the real impact of each of these materials.

Like we learned in the video about plastic, the US used to send a majority of its waste to China. Among that waste, paper was included. But, China banned imports of US waste in 2018.

So, because the market for recycling sort of crashed, there is really no value in recycling in the US. Though, as we learned with metal, it CAN be more valuable than making new products. But, is it more valuable to recycle paper or is it cheaper to just chop down more trees and make it from scratch?

Unfortunately, it’s not. Throughout the last two years, cities across the US have been saving paper bales in the hopes that someone will take it, but no companies will. Instead, it’s sent to landfill or the incinerator. Since this is all mostly ending up in the landfill now, it is more important than ever for us to reduce our consumption versus assuming it gets recycled. Because, chances are, unless it’s metal, it’s likely just throw into the garbage. Not to mention, making virgin paper, like plastic, is cheaper, so there is theoretically no financial need to recycle paper.

As with other materials, too, contamination is a huge issue. It wasn’t a big deal when we sent it overseas. Out of sight, out of might. It was someone else's problem. But, now it’s our problem and we don’t seem to want to waste time sorting it when making virgin materials is cheaper. So, the best thing we can do as consumers, as I mention quite frequently, is to recycle properly which includes avoiding contamination. In the case of paper, this means no greasy pizza boxes and no wet or otherwise dirty paper. We often just throw things into our recycling out of guilt, but by doing so, it prevents a lot of recycling from actually being recycled with due to contamination or that item simply cannot be recycled.

Another downside to paper, similar to plastic, is that is cannot be recycled infinitely. Every time it is recycled, the paper gets shorter, after being recycled 5-7 times, the fibers become too short to bond into new paper. So, new fibers are added to replace the weakening fibers. So, recycled paper may actually contain some new fibers to keep the structure.

Stay tuned, because in one week, you will get to see me testing this theory at home by recycling my own paper over and over again until it no longer forms paper. I want to see if this is true for old-fashioned paper making techniques as well as commercial techniques since it won’t be nearly as heavily processed, bleached, and so forth.

Something else to note is what we are throwing out. It’s fine to consume paper, but only consume what you need. Most of what is recycled in American households is packaging and junk mail. Reduce packaging if possible and make sure you email companies to stop sending junk mail to your house.

Some good news about paper though:

  • By weight, paper accounts anywhere from half to 3/4 of the amount of recycling in the US. In 2017, this number was 75%. I personally think this has a lot to do with offices and schools offering paper recycling but not recycling for other materials.

  • The recycling rate was about 66% in 2019 (in 1990, this number was just 34%!)

  • We use about 70 million tons of paper and paperboard in the US every year while about 43 millions tons are recycled

  • Recovered paper can be used to make new paper products. About 37% of paper production in 2011 was recycled paper

  • In the US, only about 1/3 of papermaking materials comes from recycled paper, the rest from whole trees, plants, and wood scraps

  • Paper recycling is actually on the rise. In the last 30 years, paper recycling has doubled

  • The amount of paper being sent to landfill is on the downhill slope with about 33 million tons sent to landfill in 2008 and 21.5 million tons in 2019. Still a lot, but seeing this downhill trend is good news

  • Every ton of paper that can be recycled can spare 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil for processing and shipping, 4,000 kilowatts of energy, 7,000 gallons of water, and 3 cubic yards of space in a landfill

  • Over 1/3 of new paper is produce with recycled fiber be it from recycled paper or recycled wood pieces. This is similar to what we see with metal, too

What happens to paper once it’s recycled? Over 70% of the US recycled paper get’s exported and turned into containerboard. The rest gets turned into boxboard, tissue, newsprint, and others. This is based on data from 2019. If you remember from the video about plastic, China used to take a lot of our waste, pre-recycling. But, they also purchased recycled materials from us, too, including paper, which they also reduced in 2018. Though this happened, it is still great to see so much of paper in the US being recycled unlike plastic which saw a drastic decline when China banned imports.

Overall, I’d say paper is one of the better products to purchase. It clearly isn’t the worst *cough cough plastic,* but it ranks up there with metal, in my opinion. Some great things about paper is it’s high recycling rate and the fact that it can be repurposed into so much once it is recycled. It is also lightweight and doesn’t break like glass. So, if you have to chose, my opinion is metal or paper over glass or plastic. If you missed those videos, definitely check them out to learn more about why I say this.

What can we do as consumers to help paper recycling improve?

This will be generally the same as I have stated for other materials, sorry if you’ve seen those videos.

  1. Recycle properly. Don’t throw random bits in your bin to make yourself feel less guilty. You can watch this video here to learn more about certain paper products (and other materials) that cannot be recycled. By recycling properly, you ensure your bin won’t just be taken to landfill because it is easier to sort at the plants

  2. Don’t put contaminated paper in your bin. This includes greasy pizza boxes, paper with coffee spill, or even wet paper. You can dry the paper first and then place it in your bin

  3. If it’s raining or windy, bring your bin inside to prevent the paper from getting wet and/or blowing away

  4. Consume less. Even if that just means you stop receiving junk mail, that’s great. But, take it a step further. See if you can cut any paper out of your life. Don’t impulse buy, either.

  5. Support recycled paper products. When buying a new notebook, choose one made from recycled paper. This proves to companies that the market is profitable.

  6. Educate and inspire others to recycle properly as well

Thank you so much for reading along, again if you missed the first three parts in this series, don’t forget to check them out.

Where does our plastic go and why does so much of it end up in the ocean?

The truth about glass recycling: is it as sustainable as we think?

What happens to our metal waste?

I really appreciate your time and hope this was valuable to you. Until next time, remember that the small changes you make have a big impact in the long run :)

- Emma

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