Is Recycling Paper Worth It? (+ Crucial Facts You Should Know)

A study made popular in the ’80s told the world that 17 trees were saved for every ton of paper that we recycled.  

But recently, the data has come into question. Most of the paper that’s made in the developed world is now harvested from tree plantations.

Some suggest that even if we recycled every piece of paper, the trees on plantations would be used for other products, regardless of the demand for paper.  

Despite not saving as many trees as we’d like – the evidence still overwhelmingly reveals that recycling paper is worth it

Recycling paper saves energy and water, it slows the growth of landfills and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.  

Is All Paper 100% Recyclable?

Not all paper is recyclable. 

Many paper products can be easily recycled but others should stay far from your recycling bin or else you run the risk of contaminating the batch and dooming it all to landfill. 

To make matters a little more confusing, each municipality has different equipment and means. 

This creates variation in what is accepted for recycling from city to city. 

These lists of recyclable and non-recyclable paper are a good place to start, but they’re a general guide.

You should always check your waste management facility’s website to confirm which materials they accept.

Recyclable Paper ProductsNon-Recyclable Paper ProductsRecyclability Depends on the Municipality (contact to clarify)
Office paperPaper cupsSticky notes
NewspaperPaper towelsGlossy business cards
File foldersPaper platesGlossy flyers and leaflets
Non-glossy business cardsToilet paperMagazines
Envelopes (remove plastic window)NapkinsCatalogs
Brown paperStandard receiptsShredded paper
BPA-free receiptsPhotosChristmas/birthday cards without glitter or foil
Corrugated cardboard (for information about which types of cardboard you can recycle, read here)Parchment paperHard and softcover books
Butcher paper
Wax paper
Metallic wrapping paper

Is Paper Easy to Recycle? 

Once you’re clear on what types of paper you can recycle, the rest is easy. 

The two big paper recycling rules to remember are: 

  1. Keep it clean 
  2. Keep it dry

Can Paper Be Recycled If It Gets Wet?

Wet paper can clog up and break recycling machinery. Paper and cardboard must be completely dry before being placed in recycling. 

Do not recycle any paper with food waste or craft products like paint, glue, glitter, crayons, excessive tape, or stickers. And avoid recycling paper that has been laminated. 

Do I Have to Remove Staples from Paper Before Recycling?

You don’t need to worry about staples and paperclips because the machinery has been designed to remove those during the recycling process. 

However, you should remove paperclips before recycling them for the simple reason that you can reuse them. 

It’s perfectly fine to recycle paper that has been crumpled. Paper with pencil, pen, marker, and printer ink is also ok because the ink is removed during the recycling process. 

How Can You Avoid Contaminating Your Paper Recycling? 

Many municipalities use the ‘single-stream’ recycling system. 

In a single-stream system, you place all of your recycling (aluminum, paper, cardboard, plastic, and glass) in one single bin. 

The problem with this system is that it’s easier for your recycling to become contaminated. And if your recycling gets contaminated, it goes to a landfill and cancels out your effort. 

To avoid contaminating the contents of your recycling bin, make sure that you do not place non-recyclables in the bin.

Make sure your soft drink cans and wine bottles have been rinsed and have been given the chance to dry before putting them in the bin. 

The same goes for your jelly jars and yogurt cups – the rule is “wash and dry” before the bin. 

How Often Can Paper Be Recycled?

Paper products have a lifespan of 5-7 recycling processes. 

Paper is mainly made from wood fibers. Those fibers become shorter each time paper is recycled. Shorter fibers make thinner and less durable paper. 

When paper is on its last leg, it’s made into a paste that’s used for egg cartons and newspapers.

How Does Paper Recycling Affect The Environment?

Recycling paper has both a positive and negative impact on the environment. 

Despite the negative impact, the pros continue to outweigh the cons, making recycled paper more environmentally friendly than paper that comes straight from raw materials. 

What Are the Benefits of Recycling Paper?

  1. Conserve Water and Energy

Making paper from raw materials wastes 47-50% more water than making paper from recycled paper.

Extracting and processing wood to make paper is energy-intensive. By using recycled paper to make new paper, we save about 60% of the energy needed. 

  1. Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions 

If you don’t recycle paper, it’s sent to a landfill. In the environment of a landfill, paper does not receive oxygen to aid its decomposition process.

Because of this, the paper in a landfill is decomposed by microbes and turned into methane

Methane is a strong greenhouse gas. For the first 20 years after its creation, it’s 84 times more powerful than CO2.

It’s incredibly effective at trapping the sun’s heat and contributing to global warming. 

Recycling paper is imperative to reducing the amount of methane in the atmosphere. 

  1. Reduce Landfills 

In 2018, paper and paperboard made up 11.8% of the municipal solid waste found in landfills in the US. 

That’s 17.2 million tons of paper products taking up landfill space in 2018 alone. 

We can reduce landfill sprawl by 3.3 cubic yards for every ton of paper that we recycle, cardboard excluded. 

Many landfill sites are older designs that contaminate soil and groundwater. By recycling, you avoid contributing to the growth of landfill contamination.

What Are The Disadvantages of Recycling Paper?

  1. The Recycling Process Uses Toxic Chemicals 

Toxic surfactants are used to de-ink paper for recycling. Paper pulp is also bleached to add brightness. 

Fortunately, paper processors, aware of the pressing environmental issues, have begun to use biodegradable surfactants.

They then make sure the wastewater passes through secondary wastewater treatment to reduce levels of toxicity. 

Dumping untreated wastewater into rivers is becoming a thing of the past where best practices are reinforced through strict auditing. 

The use of chlorine has also decreased. It’s been replaced by “totally chlorine free” (TFC) processes.

Despite the persistent use of chemicals, processing recycled paper has a lower chemical impact than producing paper from virgin materials. 

  1. Recycling Byproducts End Up in Landfills

Recycling paper helps us slow the growth of landfills. 

However, when we recycle paper –  the process of removing the ink, labels, glue, plastic envelope windows, paperclips, and staples – produces sludge. That sludge will wind up in landfills. 

  1. Paper Is a “Fragile” Material 

Glass and aluminum can be recycled infinitely without losing their quality.

This holds the potential of creating a closed-loop cycle in which very few raw materials could need to be harvested for their production.  

Let’s compare that to paper, which can only be recycled 5-7 times before reaching the end of its lifespan. That means eventually, more trees will need to be cut down. 

Paper is also easily contaminated. Once it’s soiled, it’s not something that we can wash, dry, and place in the bin. 

Is Recycling Paper Profitable?

Because recycled paper pulp is an important element in a wide variety of products, there is a demand. In April 2020, sorted office paper was selling for $50 per ton.  

However, many municipalities in the US have stopped their curbside collection programs because the collection cost per ton is far higher than the selling price.

For example, New York City spent $686 per ton to collect recycling in 2019. 

If you’re interested in earning extra cash from your recycling, you can use Earth 911’s ‘Where to Recycle’ tool to find recycling centers near you. 

Once you’ve located recycling centers, you can use the phone number listed to call and ask if they pay for paper. 

What Products Does Paper Get Recycled Into?

Recycled paper can be found in thousands of products. You can find recycled paper in tape, bandages, hospital gowns, coffee filters, and animal bedding.

Here is a shortlist of what some of the most common paper products are made into. 

Newspaper 

Recycled newspaper is used for the production of egg cartons, building insulation, construction paper, paperboard, kitty litter, sheetrock, paper plates, and more newspaper. 

Magazines 

Recycled magazines can be made into paperboard and newspapers. 

Office Paper

Recycled notebook paper and computer paper can be recycled into paper towels, tissues, toilet paper, napkins, more office paper, and notebook paper. 

Can Paper Be Composted Instead of Recycled?

Yes, paper can be composted instead of recycled. But that doesn’t mean composting is always the best option. 

You should choose paper for composting when it falls under two categories: 

  1. The paper can’t otherwise be recycled because it’s soiled with food or it’s wet. 
  2. The paper is free of toxic chemicals or dyes. (Avoid color paper, glossy paper, or paper with ink) 

Of course, composting paper is better than throwing it in the garbage. 

But when it’s possible, you should opt to recycle instead of compost.   

When we compost paper that could have been recycled, we aren’t helping to offset the environmental impact of producing paper from raw materials. 

How Much of All Our Paper Trash Gets Recycled?

The most recent data from the US Environmental Protection Agency states that the recycling rate for paper and paperboard was at 68.2% in 2018

Paper has been the most recycled material of all municipal solid wastes. 

How Do I Dispose of Paper Properly?

First, ask yourself, ‘can I reuse this paper?’

If the paper can’t be saved and reused, you’re left with three other options. 

You need to identify if your paper is:

  1. recyclable
  2. compostable, or
  3. trash. 

Always make sure the paper that you’re seeking to dispose of does not contain personal information like bank accounts or social security numbers. 

If the paper contains sensitive information, it should be destroyed before being disposed of. 

If the paper is recyclable: 

Simply make sure that it is clean and dry. And place it in a clean, dry recycling bin.

If you have doubts about the recyclability of the paper in question, you can check the website of your municipality or recycling center.

If the paper is compostable: 

Tear it into pieces before adding it to your compost pile and it will break down faster. 

If the paper cannot be reused, recycled, or composted – it is trash and can be thrown away. 

What Happens If I Don’t Recycle Paper?

If you don’t recycle or compost used paper, you will most likely throw it in the trash.

Trash collectors will take it where they take all the other trash, to a landfill. 

What Happens to Paper in a Landfill?

Paper takes up space in landfills, creating even larger landfills that contaminate the surrounding ecosystem. 

Paper also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Landfills have compression systems that are designed to reduce the space that garbage takes up. 

This compression system causes a lack of air between the material being compressed. Because there is no air, natural aerobic decomposition cannot take place. 

Paper in landfills is broken down anaerobically by microbes which produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas that intensifies global warming. 

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) identifies paper as one of the largest sources of landfill methane

Conclusion 

Paper may not have an endless recycling lifespan like aluminum and glass.

But the benefits of recycling paper outweigh the drawbacks, making this eco-action worth your time.

It’s a simple effort that comes with a big reward – saving natural resources, reducing greenhouse gases, and shrinking landfills. 

The easy-to-follow guidelines to recycling paper are : 

  1. Identify which types of paper are recyclable near you. 
  2. Make sure your paper is clean, free from food, drinks, plastic, or waste from crafts. 
  3. Keep it dry. Wet paper clogs machinery. 
  4. Staples, paperclips, and ink are no problem. 
  5. If possible, recycle before composting.

On a final note, more important than recycling paper, we should first reduce how much paper we use.

Brainstorm which areas of your life can go paperless like using cloth napkins instead of paper and taking notes electronically instead of in a notebook. 

Get creative with the way you reduce your use of paper. You can even try your hand at making your paper at home.

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