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Paper Recycling: An Environmental Success Story

Paper recycling is more than just putting used paper in an appropriately-labeled recycling bin. Rather, it is an entire process that includes collecting, sorting, shipping, manufacturing and purchasing the newly-made products in a repeatable cycle. Whether paper is made from trees, crops, agricultural residue or other fibers, a recycling system is needed to promote environmental sustainability.

A surprisingly large number of products can be made from recycled materials: fine writing and printing papers; newspapers and magazines; household paper products like paper towels, napkins, facial and toilet tissue; office products like copy paper, file folders, envelopes and adding machine tape; packaging products like cereal packages, egg cartons, gift boxes, and cardboard boxes; game boards; animal bedding; and insulation.

History of paper recycling Recycling for paper is not new. In the United States, it has been going on since 1690, when paper was made from rags rather than wood pulp. In that year the first paper mill in the United States, the Rittenhouse Mill near Philadelphia, made paper from fiber derived from cotton and linen rags (often used clothing). To make the mill a success, William Rittenhouse teamed with William Bradford, the owner of a printing establishment, who had a monopoly on all the paper produced by the mill – 1200 reams a year.

During the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin used scrap paper for his printing presses and Massachusetts required that all towns appoint an individual to receive rags for paper mills. In 1896 the first major recycling center was started by the Benedetto family in New York City. They collected rags, newspaper and trash with a push cart.

During World War I, the federal government created the Waste Reclamation Service to encourage the public to save old rags and waste paper. Used paper became a valuable commodity to offset the shortage of paper pulp. Paper mills used old books, newspapers and business papers to make new paper fiber. In 1929, Sacramento, California began selling the city’s waste paper to an independent paper company and with the revenue generated, increased the wages of its trash collectors by 25 cents a day.

By 1993, more paper was being recycled than thrown away – a turning point in paper industry production.

Paper recycling statistics The United States is the world’s leading paper recycler, responsible for over one-third of all the paper recovered in the world. According to 2013 data from the annual American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) Fiber Survey published by Paper Recycles, in 2013, 55% of recovered paper stayed in the United States and 40% was exported to China and other overseas markets. The use of recycled paper by category is:

  • Net overseas exports = 40%

  • Containerboard (i.e. corrugated boxes) = 32%

  • Boxboard (i.e., cereal packages) = 12%

  • Tissue = 9%

  • Newsprint = 2%

  • Other = 5%

In the United States, papermaking materials come from three primary sources: recycled paper; trees and other plants; and wood chips and scraps from saw mills. Each source accounts for about one-third of the total maaterials. In 2008 there were 430 pulp and paper mills in 41 states (all but Alaska, Colorado, North Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming). By 2010, 80% of these relied on recycled paper to contribute 37% of the material used to make new paper products. Here are some recycling facts:

  • The largest single category of paper use in the United States is not for reading and writing. It is for packaging – 41% of all paper used.

  • Between 1990 and 2010, paper recycling almost doubled (89% increase).

  • Since 1993, more paper is recovered than is sent to landfills. In 2013, 50.1 million tons of paper was re recovered and 19.9 tons went to landfill.

  • In 2014, over 96% of Americans had access to curbside or drop-off paper recycling programs.

  • By weight, more paper and paperboard packaging is recovered for recycling than all glass, plastic, metal and other materials combined. Paper accounts for 74.6% of all recovered materials.

  • In 2012 about 44 million tons of paper and paperboard were recovered, for a recycling rate of almost 65%.

  • In 2013, almost 11 million tons of printing and writing paper were recovered for a recycling rate of 53%.

  • In 2013, almost 70% of all newsprint was recovered for recycling. About one-third is recycled back into newsprint; the rest is made into other packaging products and animal bedding.

  • In 2013, 88.5% of corrugated cardboard was recovered for recycling. 32% of the material recovered went to produce containerboard and 12% to produce boxboard. Most corrugated boxes have over 25% recycled fibers; some are 100% recycled.

  • It costs 50% to 80% less to construct a paper mill that uses recycled materials instead of virgin materials.

  • Producing paper using recycled materials takes 40% less energy than producing paper from virgin pulp.

  • For every 15,000 tons of old newspaper recycled annually, 30 jobs are created to collect the paper and 40 jobs are created to process the paper.

And a final though unrelated fun recycling fact: an estimated 80 million Hershey’s kisses are wrapped each day. This uses enough aluminum foil to cover over 50 acres of space, or almost 40 football fields. All that foil can be recycled though not many people realize it.

Recycling saves Recycling conserves resources. It takes 40% less energy and creates 74% less air pollution and 35% less water pollution to produce paper using recycled materials than virgin wood pulp. Using recycled paper saves 7000 gallons of water per ton of paper produced.

Paper can be recycled and used to make new paper many times. However, each time the recovered paper is reduced to pulp and reformatted into a new product, the paper fibers grow shorter. Eventually – after seven recycles – the paper fibers will no longer hold together. To combat this, paper mills use a mix of virgin and never-before-recycled paper materials to produce pulp. Most recovered paper is recycled into a paper grade equal to or lower than the grade of the original paper.

We use paper responsibly At Millennium Printing Corporation, we support both recycling and responsible use of paper. In our production operation, we use standards for makeready (i.e., the preparation steps for offset printing) and setups for post-press activities like folding and cutting to keep our paper use within acceptable range. We carry an inventory of popular papers so we can minimize how much surplus paper we accumulate. Finally, what surplus paper we do have we donate periodically to schools and non-profit organizations.

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