Paper recycling has been around almost as long as paper itself. In fact, the first paper produced in America more than 300 years ago at the Rittenhouse paper mill in Pennsylvania was made from cloth rags. Municipal paper recycling began in Baltimore, Maryland in 1874 and the first recycling center was opened in New York City in 1896.

In modern times, one ton of recycled paper can save 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 4,000 kilowatts of energy and 7,000 gallons of water.

Perhaps someday e-mail, online newspapers and cloth napkins will push disposable paper products right out of our lives – but for now, this ubiquitous material in its many forms still accounts for 68 million tons of waste each year, or 28 percent of America's total waste output. Thankfully, most of that paper doesn't end up in the landfill: paper recycling rates have been rising over the years, topping 60 percent in 2009.

Recycled and reused

Invented in China in 105 A.D., paper has played a large role in communication, and we still use the bulk of it today to produce books, newspapers, directories, envelopes, writing paper and copy paper for the office. Product packaging, shipping boxes, paper towels, napkins, cups, bags and coffee filters are just a few other forms of paper products commonly used and disposed of on a daily basis.

But even once it's no longer useful in its current form, yesterday's paper has life in it yet. Once it's recycled, paper can be used to make dozens of new products including masking tape, money, hospital gowns, coffee filters, car insulation and egg cartons. Recycled paper makes up 33 percent of materials for new paper products, with the other 66 percent split evenly between whole trees and wood chips from sawmills.

How it works

So how does paper recycling work? Once paper products reach the recycling center, they're sorted by grade, wrapped into tight bales and transported to paper mills, where they are transported on conveyor belts to large vats called pulpers. Like a giant blender, the pulper chops the recovered paper into small pieces, mixing it with water and chemicals to form pulp.

The pulp is then forced through screens to remove contaminants like glue and plastic, and spun in large cylinders to shake out larger contaminants like staples. Inks and adhesives are washed out, and the paper pulp is then 'refined', or beaten to make the paper fibers swell.

The pulp may then be bleached to make it look new again before it's mixed with water and chemicals and fed into the 'headbox' of a paper-making machine, where it's rolled flat and squeezed dry. Finally, in its finished state, recycled paper is wound into giant rolls that can weigh as much as 20 tons each and shipped to a converting plant where it may be made into products like envelopes, copy paper, boxes and bags.

Limits of recycling

Recycled paper does have its limits. Each time it goes through this process, the paper fibers shrink, making them brittle and difficult to work with. That's why recycled paper products like egg cartons often can't be accepted by your local recycling center.

New technology is emerging that could make paper recycling even more efficient. Canadian tissue paper mill Cascades, Inc. recently announced that it's investing millions of dollars in new equipment that will not only produce “superior quality tissue paper” from less recycled fibers, but do so using less energy, less water and fewer chemical products.

The paper industry and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hope that paper recycling rates will continue on an upward trend. Under the Resource Conservation Challenge (RCC), EPA has set a goal to boost the nation's overall recycling rate 40 percent by 2011 through programs like WasteWise and Recycle on the Go.