Paper Recycling: When, How and Why? Here’s What You Need to Know

As the largest producer of uncoated free sheet paper in North America, Domtar is delighted that what we make gets used and reused. Thanks to paper recycling, our book paper has a very long shelf life — quite literally. We also make stationery and copy paper that, after it serves its initial purpose, comes back for encore performances as paper bags, birthday cards, gift boxes, egg cartons or, eventually, toilet tissue.

But deciding when and where to use recycled paper fiber to make new products is not as simple as it may seem. How can we ensure that recycled paper fiber is being reused in products that result in the lowest environmental impacts — that is, with the least amount of chemicals, water and energy used?

Domtar has brought together system dynamics experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the American Forest & Paper Association to explore better ways to handle paper recycling. The team initiated the research project by developing a model for the flow of recycled and virgin fiber into, within and out of the U.S. economy. The team also studied the environmental tradeoffs of using recycled fiber in various grades of paper.

The good news? Americans are doing a better job with paper recycling than ever before. Paper recovery rates in the United States reached an all-time high of nearly 67 percent in 2015. Recycling paper not only keeps the material out of landfills, but also prevents methane, a greenhouse gas, from being formed when paper and other organic materials decompose.

What is the best use of recycled paper fiber? While using recycled fiber in office paper seems logical, there is a limit to how much recycled paper fiber can be used in that product without creating important consequences. For example, using recycled fiber in office paper leaves less of that fiber available for more efficient uses such as tissue and paperboard.

Many of Domtar’s largest paper customers — including insurance companies and financial institutions — care about the sustainability of their paper use and support new ways of thinking about paper recycling.

“Many of our high-volume customers, who use paper for statements, invoices and other uses, support a holistic approach to understanding recycled content and where it’s best used,” said Mike Spath, director of sales for strategic accounts at Domtar. “They and we are interested in taking a sophisticated look at how policy and paper procurement decisions affect other recycled fiber users in the global economy. In which products should suppliers be encouraged to use more recycled content? This MIT research is groundbreaking in developing a simulation model that will provide new insight to the conversations about whether we are doing more environmental good than harm in our choices around paper recovery and using recycled fiber in various grades.”

Here are three other thoughts about paper recycling.

Recovered Paper Supply Is Finite

Nearly two-thirds of paper products in the U.S. are currently recycled. Because some paper shouldn’t be recycled — toilet tissue, for example — and because some paper, like that used in books and birth certificates, is made to last for years, we are nearing the practical maximum amount of used paper that can be recovered. Experts estimate only about 80 percent of used paper can be recovered.

Not All Recovered Fiber Is the Same

Putting more recycled paper fiber in office or copy paper moves this finite resource into a less efficient use. It also affects the manufacturing process for new paper products. Office paper can be recycled to make a cardboard box, but a box can’t be used to make paper. A cardboard box can be recycled into fibers for some tissue products, but tissue can never become a box.

So if the office paper fibers that could be used in other products a few more times instead go back into making new office paper, then new fiber — fresh from trees — will have to be used to make cardboard and tissue, which can be reused fewer times.

Paper Can Be Recycled Only So Many Times

The wood fibers in our products are used as many as seven times, enjoying a reincarnation of sorts with each round of recycling. After several rounds, the individual paper fibers become too short and weak to form a paper sheet. So new paper fibers must be continuously introduced into the system to sustain recycling efforts.

All of the products Domtar makes require at least some new fiber. By using more new fiber upstream, rather than downstream in the paper recycling chain, we can maximize fiber potential and minimize the negative environmental effects of manufacturing processes.

Paper Recycling for the Future

Many people who care about sustainability take pride in buying items made with recycled paper content. At Domtar we believe in a holistic view and an honest examination of recovered fiber as a valuable, finite resource in our dynamic and  interconnected global economy.

We look forward to results from the MIT and American Forest & Paper Association paper recycling study. We are heartened by the support of customers who continually encourage Domtar to develop more holistic solutions to the world’s sustainability challenges. A better understanding of the complex, interconnected and dynamic fiber recovery system will enable policy makers and paper buyers to make more informed and ultimately more sustainable decisions about paper recycling.

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Categories:  Environmental Responsibility, Industry Insights

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