paper recycling

Paper is one of the most commonly recycled materials on earth. Throughout the world, if paper is consumed, a collection system has been created to recycle the material. Paper can be recycled at home, at work and at school. Wherever you are, look for a paper recycling bin and use it!

The history of paper

Paper, as we now know it, was invited by the Chinese the second century B.C. As trade increased throughout the world, paper came along for the ride. Before using paper, manmade materials like papyrus, parchment and vellum were used. Papyrus, parchment and vellum were extremely expensive to make, meaning only the well to do had access to these writing materials. The first papers did not use wood as their basis, however — opting for rags and fabrics instead. By the Middle Ages, paper made its way to Europe; by the Renaissance of the 1400s, the first mechanized paper mill had been invented. With the advent of the printing press, paper became a cost-effective manner of storing information and transmitting ideas. This helped lead to the rise of the printing press and the nearly universal access to reading and knowledge that we enjoy today. Before Europeans began importing and manufacturing paper, however, the Japanese had learned how to recycle it. By 1035, residents of the island nation, accustomed to making the most of limited resources, had discovered a way to turn waste paper into pulp and then recreate it into new, usable paper. In the U.S., paper recycling has always had a strong presence, with the image of the “rag picker” or “rag man” a part of the national conscious. The first paper mills did not use wood as their pulp material of choice, instead reverting back to the tried-and-true Chinese methods when printing the first materials in the New World.

Why paper recycling is important

Recycling paper provides important benefits, both to the economy and the environment. The worldwide average for use of paper is 110 pounds per person, per year. Recycling just 1 ton of paper saves 17 mature trees from being harvested to make paper pulp. That same effort conserves 7,000 gallons of water, 3 cubic yards of landfill space, two barrels of oil and enough electricity to power an American home for six months, the U.S. EPA estimates. Recycled paper is also a valuable commodity — the recycling industry says in 2012, $3.5 billion worth of recycled paper was exported and sold overseas. More than three-quarters of the paper mills in the U.S. require recycled material to make new products.

How paper is recycled

Paper is collected from local recycling centers and in curbside recycling bins. From the collection point, paper is taken to a sorting facility where it is sorted by grade — office paper, newspaper, cardboard (smooth and corrugated) and craft paper are all separated and prepped for recycling. After it has been sorted, paper is packed into tight bales and sent to paper mills. At the paper mill, paper grades are stockpiled until needed (as different types of paper are used to produce different types of new paper products). During the recycling process, paper is first sent into a pulper, which contains water and chemicals to help break down the paper. The paper is broken down into small pieces and heated, then chopped into pulp. The pulp is cleaned by being fed through screens of various shapes and sizes to remove contaminants like plastic and glue from bindings. Sometimes, a de-inking process is also used. Next, pulp is refined, stripped of colors and dyes and, if white products are being made, bleached. Once cleaned, de-inked and bleached, the pulp is ready to become new paper. This recycled pulp can be used alone in the new papermaking process, or combined with pulp made from new wood (virgin fiber) to lend added strength and smoothness. Paper is generally recycled into grades that are equal or lower quality than the paper it started as. Old corrugated cardboard can be used to make new recycled corrugated boxes, recovered printed and writing paper can become new copy paper and newsprint can become new newsprint.

How can I recycle paper?

Many locations offer organized paper collection programs. You can visit our recycling location search to find a collection spot near you. As well, many towns accept waste paper in curbside collection programs, and each U.S. state has registered paper-recycling companies located inside its borders. Don’t forget to recycle paper at work, too. While electronic record-keeping and information storage is quickly expanding, the vast majority of businesses still produce paper records of some kind. If curbside recycling is not an option, contact your local government and see where community collection points are, and ask what companies accept paper for recycling. You can also contact your local newspaper and see if they accept returns of old newspapers as well. Many kids’ craft projects reuse paper, but paper can be recycled at home as a fun, hands-on science experiment. To recycle newspaper at home:
  1. Cut newspaper into small pieces. About four or five sheets of newspaper will make two pieces of recycled paper.
  2. Put the scraps into a bowl, cover them with water and stir and mix until all the paper is wet. Let the paper sit for a few hours, until the mixture has the consistency of oatmeal.
  3. Mix in a few tablespoons of cornstarch and more hot water. Congratulations, you have created pulp!
  4. Now, use a pencil to punch holes in a sheet of aluminum foil the size of the paper you want to make. This will allow you to press out extra water from your paper. Lay your strainer sheet of foil aside.
  5. Place a new piece of foil on top of other newspaper pages to catch drips. Spread your pulp in a thin layer on top of the solid sheet of foil, and press your strainer sheet on top. Press out as much water as possible. Position books — with a layer of newspaper between them and your strainer sheet to protect them — on top of your paper press. Leave it overnight, and by the next morning, the paper should have dried enough to peel back the foil. Children can make cards or other crafts from their newly recycled paper!