Versatile Fiber Sheets
Think about all of the different varieties of paper that people use every day. This derivative of wood pulp, grasses, or rags is made when damp fibers are pressed together to form thin sheets. Paper is used for packaging other products and as a surface for printing, art, and advertising. Other common examples of paper include newspaper, office paper, magazines, phone books, and cardboard.
Evolution of Paper Production
One of mankind’s earliest artisanal crafts, paper has been made since at least the 2nd century BCE in China. Even as early as 2500 BCE, ancient Egyptians used papyrus, a plant-based forerunner to paper, as material for writing upon. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that modern machines were made for the production of paper, in the late 1700s. Since then, paper production has grown exponentially, with just under 80 million tons produced in the US in 2015 alone.
Paper Waste Crisis
With this rise in production, there has been an accompanying spike in paper-related waste. EPA estimates that in 2014, paper accounted for 26.6 percent of all municipal solid waste in the US, at 68.62 million tons.
Paper is highly recyclable and is typically collected in one of three forms. “Mill broke” paper refers to waste and trimmings incurred in the paper manufacturing process. This material is collected during the paper manufacturing process and recycled internally at the paper mill. “Pre-consumer” paper waste refers to products that have completed the manufacturing process but were not sold for consumer use. “Post-consumer” paper waste is the category most consumers are familiar with, which includes any paper product that has been used and discarded by consumers.
How Paper is Recycled
All paper waste is broken down into a basic pulp via water, heat, and chemical treatments. After impurities like ink or glue are strained out, the resulting fibrous material can be reconstituted into new paper for a broad range of uses.
Limits on Paper Recycling
Paper (paper fibers) cannot be recycled indefinitely — each time paper is recycled, the fibers shorten, eventually becoming too small and weak to be able to be used again. This is in direct contrast to, for example, aluminum, which can be recycled indefinitely.
Paper can also be easily contaminated. Paper that has been wet or soiled with grease or other residues is not recyclable and could ruin a batch of recycled pulp.
Benefits of Paper Recycling
Recycling paper keeps it out of landfills for longer, which reduces the greenhouse gas methane that would otherwise be created by paper decomposing in a landfill under anaerobic (no oxygen) conditions.
Producing recycled paper products also saves energy over producing paper from virgin wood, which has to be logged, and broken down into pulp, which creates more emissions as well.
Paper made up over 14 percent of all landfilled material in 2014, much of which is contaminated paper, and not recyclable, but some of which could have been recycled. Consumers can save money by recycling, through reduced costs in pay-as-you-throw trash programs and reward incentives like the ones offered by Recyclebank. Paper recycling is very common and easy in most regions throughout the US.