Why recycle paper?

Because paper and paperboard products represent the largest portion of our municipal waste stream (e.g., trash). In 2007, paper and paperboard products accounted for about 83 million tons (or 33 percent) of all materials in the municipal waste stream. In that same year, we recycled more than half (55 percent or 45 million tons) of all the paper that Americans used.

Benefits of paper recycling

The environmental benefits of paper recycling are many. Paper recycling:

  • Reduces greenhouse gas emissions that can contribute to climate change by avoiding methane emissions and reducing energy required for a number of paper products.
  • Extends the fiber supply and contributes to carbon sequestration.
  • Saves considerable landfill space.
  • Reduces energy and water consumption.
  • Decreases the need for disposal (i.e., landfill or incineration which decreases the amount of CO2 produced).
On the other hand, when trees are harvested for papermaking, carbon is released, generally in the form of carbon dioxide. When the rate of carbon absorption exceeds the rate of release, carbon is said to be "sequestered." This carbon sequestration reduces greenhouse gas concentrations by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Source reduction/lightweighting

Source reduction is the process of reducing the volume or toxicity of waste generated.

One form of source reduction is "lightweighting." Lightweighting means reducing the weight and/or volume of a package or container, which saves energy and raw materials. As early as 1983, companies manufacturing food service disposables began reducing the weight of plates, bowls, containers, trays and other tableware. Manufacturers of paper food service disposables have been able to source reduce by decreasing the paper stock required to manufacture food service containers and coating the containers with a very thin layer of polyethylene or wax. The coating enables the container to maintain its strength and food-protection functions.

Paper packaging is also a good example of where lightweighting has been achieved. Product manufacturers work with their packaging suppliers to identify the best combination of effective protection for the product using the lightest weight package.

Another way to reduce the amount of paper used is to reduce the margins, whether it is in newspapers, books, or everyday printing. For example, reducing the margins in Microsoft Word from 1.25 inches to 0.75 inch could result in average paper savings of approximately 4.75 percent.

Also related to source reduction are forest certification programs such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), a comprehensive system of principles, objectives and performance measures developed by professional foresters, conservationists and scientists that combines the perpetual growing and harvesting of trees with the long-term protection of wildlife, plants, soil, and water quality.

Paper industry’s recovery goal

The forest, paper, and wood products industry, represented nationally by the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) trade association, has been a partner with EPA in its commitment to recycling. More paper is recovered in America for recycling (measured in terms of weight) than all other materials combined (except for steel). More than one third (37 percent) of the raw material fiber U.S. papermakers use comes from recovered paper. In 1990, the U.S. forest and paper products industry voluntarily established a goal of recovering 40 percent of the paper consumed in the U.S. That goal was achieved in 1996. The industry went on to establish a 50 percent recovery goal, which was achieved in 2003, and a 55 percent recovery goal by 2012. The recovery rate reached 56 percent in 2007 – five years ahead of schedule – and the industry has set a new 60 percent recovery goal by 2012. Since 1994, significantly more paper has been recovered in America than landfilled.

Use of recovered paper

AF&PA reported that in 1988, about 25 percent of the raw materials used at U.S. paper mills was recovered paper. In 1999, according to AF&PA, that figure rose to 36.3 percent and has remained around 36-37 percent through 2007. More than three quarters of America’s paper mills use recovered fiber to make some or all of their products. Approximately 140 mills use recovered paper exclusively. As a result, virtually all types of paper products contain some recycled fiber. According to AF&PA, the brisk rise in paper recovery is attributable to strong demand overseas for U.S. recovered paper and solid gains in domestic consumption.

MNN Public Information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Recycling paper
Paper and paperboard products represent the largest portion of our municipal waste stream (e.g., trash).