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Making Paper New Again: The Limits of Recycling Paper

recycling paper

Paper is one of the great recycling success stories in the United States.

In the 1980s, as the movement toward more conscientious treatment of the Earth and its natural resources grew, paper was one of the first products to be widely recycled. In 2016, 67.2 percent of all of the paper used in the United States was recycled — that’s a record high, and more than double the rate of 33.5 percent in 1990, according to the American Forest & Paper Association.

Today, paper is the most recycled material on the planet, and despite already reaching record high levels, the push is on to reach the maximum practical paper recovery rate of 80 percent.

But why can’t we recover 100 percent of recycled paper?

The Challenges of Recycling Paper

The quality of the paper collected for recycling plays an important role in how efficiently it can be recycled. The higher the quality of the paper, the more paper you can make using its recycled fibers.

But paper can only be recycled up to seven times before the fibers become too weak and too short to make another product. The wear and tear caused by the various recycling processes — collection, deinking, remanufacturing — lowers the yields of each successive round of recycling.

And some paper products simply cannot be recycled. For example, soiled bathroom tissue and greasy food containers are not recyclable for obvious sanitary reasons. Other paper-based products such as drywall and pet bedding, cannot be reused. In addition, long-use products such as books, official documents and photos are kept out of the recycling stream for decades.

Besides the physical limits of recycling paper, the move to single-stream collection — where plastics, papers and glass are collected in a single truck for convenience — has resulted in dramatically reduced fiber quality. Employees at sorting facilities must manually remove unrecyclable items from the recycling line, which is a costly endeavor. Too often, these non-recyclable items (such as plastic grocery bags, diapers and dirty food containers) get missed, rendering batches of recycled content unusable.

According to USA Today, people are still unsure about how and what to recycle. As a result, towns and cities across the nation must work to clear the confusion. Some communities conduct curbside audits, and collectors leave behind items that cannot be recycled. Other communities refuse to collect any recycling when the bins contain garbage.

To better understand what happens after you toss paper in a recycle bin, watch this video.

Recycling Paper Is Good

Despite its limitations and challenges, recycling paper is the right thing to do. To ensure that you’re making the most of recycled fiber, follow these three rules:

  1. Purchase products made with wood fiber from sustainably managed forests.
  2. Use paper responsibly.
  3. Become familiar with local recycling laws, and recycle whenever possible.

To learn more, read Paper Recycling: When, How and Why? Here’s What You Need to Know.