Dear Recyclebank: How many times can paper be recycled? –Neva D.
Dear Neva: Depending on the strength and length of the wood fibers used to make a given product, paper is generally thought to be able to be recycled between five and seven times before it is no longer suitable for recycling. But you won’t necessarily know how many times a given product has been recycled when you’re looking to buy it, so what’s more important is making smart, ecologically minded purchasing decisions, using only what you need, and recycling all the paper you can.
Paper is used in so many spheres of life: Communication, education, hygiene, packaging, home goods, cuisine, you name it, there’s a good chance paper was involved. Due to paper’s high demand, it is important to make sure it lands in a recycle container rather than a trashcan, whenever possible. This is especially important, as twenty-one million tons of paper still went into landfills in 2016 — fortunately, those stats are lower than they used to be. Still, the US uses sixty-eight million trees each year making products, and paper still makes up the largest portion of the municipal-solid-waste (MSW) stream.
Making effective use of natural resources, such as wood for paper, is crucial to the preservation of our way of life on earth. As consumers, we can take an active role in this effort by buying paper products that are responsibly sourced and then correctly disposing of them when we’re done using them.
Many recycled paper products are created at mills by undergoing a multi-step recovery process involving chemicals, water, and heat. Depending on the strength and length of the wood fibers, paper can undergo the recovery process between four and eight times. Once paper is no longer recyclable (for example, once it’s been made into a napkin) it should be composted — as long as it doesn’t contain any non-compostable ingredients such as plastic lining. The American Forest and Paper Association and Domtar PaperTrail® are working in concert to create a sustainability initiative that aims to exceed 70 percent paper recovery for recycling by 2020.
Two primary ways consumers can help make this a reality is:
1. Shop Green
Start with shopping green. Look for the Mobius-loop symbol (otherwise known as the recycle symbol) on a product’s packaging, but keep in mind: The symbol alone does not necessarily indicate that the product is made from one-hundred-percent recycled fibers or that it is recyclable at the curb in your area. If a product is made with less than one-hundred-percent recycled fiber, the symbol should be accompanied by the total percent by weight of recycled fiber; eighty percent or higher is ideal. Pro-tip: Look for paper that is certified by the Chlorine Free Products Association to reduce short- and long-term health hazards.
A company’s transparency is important to allow customers to make informed purchasing decisions. When shopping paper goods, look for the certification seal provided by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which ensures that forests have been managed responsibly in the production of a given product.
Recycling rules vary by municipality. In other words, just because something has a recycle symbol on it does not necessary mean it can be recycled in your area. Contact your local hauler or your city to see what’s recyclable in your area.
When sorting through paper products to recycle, please keep in mind that it is a lot easier to recycle paper that is clean, dry, and stripped of any non-paper packaging. Items such as office paper, newspaper, cereal boxes, junk mail, magazines, and flattened cardboard can be placed into a recycling container, whereas soiled paper such as food containers, napkins and paper towels cannot. This sorting helps to prevent contamination and streamline the recycling process.
Preserving the health of the planet is possible. As humans, we can make the world better by following a few simple eco-friendly rules, including learning more about the products we are purchasing and recycling them once we’re finished with them.