Updated On 06/26/2018 | Originally Published On 08/16/2016
Dear Recyclebank: I recycle and compost everything I can, but paper is always a question. I know it can only be recycled about 7 times, so how can I tell when it is greener to compost it? –Lisa
Dear Lisa: Don’t let the “7 times” statistic (the EPA actually puts the figure at between five and seven times) dissuade you from recycling some paper. Instead, think of it as a reminder that paper isn’t infinitely recyclable, and we should use it as smartly as possible.
A piece of paper’s structural integrity, and thus its ability to be recycled, depend heavily on the length of its fibers. As paper is shredded, pulped, and processed during recycling, its fibers get shorter and less flexible — so when new paper is made from recycled paper fibers, some amount of virgin wood pulp is often added in order to help reinforce the material’s strength.
As paper fibers are recycled more times, they become less useful for certain purposes. The high-quality office paper you might use in your printer requires the strength and flexibility of longer fibers, meaning it usually has to be made from paper fibers that have only undergone the recycling process a few times. Items like newsprint, tissue paper, wrapping paper, and pressed cardboard can more easily be produced from lower-quality fibers that have been through several recycled lives already.
Any paper your hauler accepts still has long enough fibers to be a valuable recyclable.
Unaccepted papers could be denied for a number of reasons, including (but not limited to) low-quality fibers. If unaccepted papers are compostable, that is a much more valuable way to dispose of them than throwing them in the trash — but if the paper is recyclable, recycle it!
Here are some more tips to help you make the best decision
High-quality office paper is under-recycled compared to the overall paper-recycling rate. Only about half of the office paper we use makes it to the recycling plant, even though in the US, 66.8 percent of all paper was recovered for recycling in 2015. If you’ve got office paper, recycle it! (Unless it’s shredded, which not only damages the fibers but also makes it hard to manage in machinery. Check your local facility’s requirements to see if they accept it.)
On the other hand, napkins, paper towels, tissues, and tissue paper are made from much lower quality material and are rarely recyclable. This goes double (for these and other contaminated paper products) if they’re already contaminated with food, liquid, or glitter and the like. So the recycling bin is a no-go for all of these, but the compost pile is a better choice than the trash can for napkins and paper towels as long as they are not contaminated with cleaning chemicals or the like. Though tissues are compostable, the germs on used tissues make many people hesitant to add them to a home compost pile. Reuse tissue paper as much as possible before composting uncontaminated sheets.
When in doubt, ask your local handler or check your city’s website for municipal guidelines. If it falls in a recyclable category, it’s generally better to take the chance that it may be usable, rather than withholding material that will have to be generated elsewhere.
As always, buy paper with post-consumer recycled content when you can. While paper can’t be recycled forever, the longer we can maintain a material’s usefulness by recycling it, the less energy is consumed and the fewer raw materials need to be consumed. That’s a win for sustainability!