Paper Recycling 101

Paper Recycling 101

by C.K. Hickey, Eco Coalition Editor

We were taught in elementary school how all paper is recyclable, but not every paper product is created equal.With all the different types of paper out there, it can be hard to determine sometimes which are better suited for recycling than others. In the interest of developing better recycling habits – and making the jobs of recycling centers easier – allow us to explain how paper recycling works.

After it’s collected, recovered paper is transferred to a recycling center, where it is sorted into its different grades and types.  The following are the most accepted classifications for recycled paper: white office paper, corrugated cardboard, newspapers, phone books, waxed cartons (like milk and juice cartons), and mixed paper (such as magazines or junk mail).  After the trash and glass bottles you “accidentally” dropped into the paper recycling bin are removed, the paper is compacted into large bales and transported to a paper mill. From this point, the fiber recovered from the paper is turned into pulp,  and the papermaking process is pretty much the same from this point as if you produced the pulp from a fallen tree. Paper can’t be recycled forever. The length of its fiber decreases each time this process is repeated, so one can recycle paper up to about seven times. This provides plenty of opportunities to purchase paper with a percentage of recycled, or “post-consumer” content.

Now then:  What if your old business cards are laminated? What about print jobs with that nice UV coating? The problem with treated paper is exactly what the name suggests: it’s treated with various plastic materials.  Some recycling resources will tell you this renders the paper unrecyclable – not quite.  It is, however, often laborious and uneconomical.  Coatings act as contaminants in the recycling process, and require an elaborate system to separate from the paper. A failure to separate everything produces an inferior grade of recycled paper. The best and greenest solution is to request coated paper with at least 10% post-consumer content.

Ultimately, the most effective method of recycling paper is to gather clean, well-sorted, dry and untreated or contaminated paper. Thanks for recycling!

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