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The Secret Lifecycle of Recycled Paper

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Paper is one of the most-recycled items, but how well do you know its lifecycle? Find out!

As much as technology surrounds us, we are far from being a paperless society — from sales receipts to instruction manuals to children’s homework, paper is an intrinsic part of our society. Fortunately, paper is also fairly easy to recycle, and comes from a renewable (albeit slowly renewable) resource. But do you really know where your paper comes from, and where it goes after you put it in the recycle bin?

Here’s a look at the life of a typical sheet of paper, from the woods to your desk to your recycling bin, and back to a paper product again:

1. Paper begins its life as wood, either from a tree that is newly felled, or from wood scraps from lumber processing (this is referred to as pre-consumer waste). Paper that's made from all newly-felled wood, rather than from any recycled materials, is called “virgin fiber paper”.
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2. The wood is processed into chips, and then further processed into pulp, a watery mush. In many cases the pulp is then bleached using chlorine, so that the final paper product is a brighter color, like the bright white paper available for printing at home. Incidentally, chlorine can be harmful to the environment, so when you're buying paper you might consider paper labeled “Elemental Chlorine Free” [ECF], "Processed Chlorine Free" [PCF] or “Totally Chlorine Free” [TCF], all of which indicate the use of more benign chemicals than chlorine — a definite check in the pros column.
3. After the pulp is made, it is sprayed onto screens, which allows the water to drain off and the fibrous strands to bond to each other. The mat that forms is then rolled; first between felt cylinders to remove more water, and then through rollers that bond the fibers to each other and create the uniform thinness of a sheet of paper.
4. Once the tree has been turned into paper, it is rolled onto huge reels (sometimes weighing up to 3 tons!) and then transferred to a converter, which trims paper to different sizes — like your standard eight-and-a-half-by-eleven printer paper — before distributing it to printers and stores.
But wait! Paper’s life isn’t even close to over yet. At this point in the cycle, paper’s future lies in consumers’ (our!) hands:

5. After the paper is purchased and used, most of it ends up in the recycling bin — Americans are pretty responsible when it comes to recycling paper. Of all the paper consumed in the U.S. in 2012, 65.1% was recovered for recycling — that's about 327 pounds of paper recovered for each person in the U.S. — while only 8% of all plastic consumed was recovered for recycling. What’s more, the amount of paper being recycled is on the rise.
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6. As the recycled paper is collected, it is taken to a recycling facility where it is separated by type — newspaper, cardboard, office, et cetera — so that paper mills can then use the specific types of paper to make different products. The different types of paper collected for recycling are not only used to make new paper, but also to make masking tape, bandages, car insulation, hospital gowns, globes, and more.
7. Once separated, the paper is made into pulp again, reverting the paper to its original cellulose fibers. The paper pulp is cleaned of contaminants like glue or staples by being pushed through screens and spun in centrifugal spinners.
8. To remove the ink from paper during the recycling process, the pulp is put through washing and flotation processes with a certain type of soap. The ink, too, is often repurposed: It can be burned for energy or used to make gravel.
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9. The recycled-paper pulp might then be mixed with some virgin fiber, or sawdust from lumber mills, which helps to make recycled papers stronger and smoother.
Now the newly-recycled paper re-enters the same cycle it went through back when it was virgin-fiber paper:

10. (or 3!) The pulp mixture is again sprayed onto screens, dried, rolled, and delivered to different distribution points. This paper, made from paper recycled by households — not just paper-mill scraps — is called “post-consumer waste [PCW] recycled paper”. Each time paper re-enters the cycle, the fibers in the paper become a little bit shorter and weaker. The fibers from that first sheet of virgin-fiber paper can usually go through the recycling process up to seven times — which means paper can have seven lives.
Next time you open your newspaper, shove a sales receipt into your wallet, or jot a note to your partner, stop think about the journey that piece of paper has already been on — and what’s in store when you recycle paper right.

What do you find fascinating about the lifecycle of paper? Share your thoughts below!

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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan

I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same.