Recycling paper is important – it’s a great way of saving resources and energy. Every single little bit of paper and cardboard that we can recycle is helpful – and the more that each of us can do, the better! Every little counts!
Just what happens to paper once it’s been picked up for recycling, though? And just how much of a difference does recycling paper and cardboard really make?
Why recycle paper?
Unlike money, paper actually does grow on trees – well, at least, paper is made from trees! And as trees grow naturally, and there are so many of them, then is recycling paper actually helpful?
Yes, definitely! Every bit of paper recycled means that a tiny bit of a tree doesn’t have to be used – it can sit happily in the forest, and can be used at a later date if we need to. It might not seem like recycling a few leaflets and cardboard boxes is going to help much, but when you have an entire street doing it, an entire city, an entire country – it really adds up!
The amount of paper that the US recycled in the year 2020 alone is staggering – according to the American Forest and Paper Association, the amount of paper recycled in America in 2020 would fill almost 4000 Washington Monuments!
Over 47 million tons of paper were recovered for recycling in 2020 – meaning that America recycled 65.7% of its paper in 2020! Since 2009, the USA has recycled more than 63% of its paper each year – proof that every little bit helps!
The more that we can reuse, the less waste – and the more natural resources there are to go around! Just because paper grows on trees, it doesn’t mean we have infinite trees – and the less paper we use and the more that we recycle, the better for the planet overall.
According to an article produced by the University of Southern Indiana, every single ton of recycled paper can save 17 trees. That’s not all, though – recycling paper also has savings in other areas that might not be immediately obvious.
All of that paper has to be produced using machines, and has to be transported from place to place, making multiple journeys on its way from the tree, to the sawmill, then on to paper plant, to the warehouse, to the printers, and then it gets transported by a postal worker and ends up in your mailbox.
That same ton of recycled paper saves 380 gallons of oil, 4000 kilowatts of energy, and 7000 gallons of water. That’s a staggering amount of oil, energy, and water saved. And if you’re thinking that a ton of paper is such a huge amount that a few leaflets and a cardboard box or two won’t make a dent – well, you’ll be really surprised at just how much paper the average person actually uses per year!
The USA uses around 85,000,000 tons of paper every single year – which works out at around 680 pounds for each person. A ton is 2000 pounds – so in less than three years, you alone will have used a ton of paper and paper products!
And the amount of paper we simply throw away each year is still huge. Every year, Americans discard without recycling enough wood and paper to heat 50,000,000 homes – for the next 20 years.
What is recycled paper used for?
One thing that definitely won’t surprise you is that paper can be recycled into paper! This is of course a great way to reuse paper – but it’s far from the only way that recycled paper is used, and it’s actually nowhere near the thing that it is actually used for most.
A massive amount of recycled paper ends up being reused to make cardboard boxes. Cardboard boxes account for nearly half of all use of recycled paper. This makes sense, when you consider how many packages are sent and received each single day – and how much the online world has replaced much of the world’s need for paper.
There’s a very good chance that any delivery you get will come to you boxed in recycled cardboard – and considering how many deliveries are made every day, it’s a great thing that we’re using recycled material for packaging!
Another great use for recycled paper is in tissue! After all – and let’s not be too crude here – if you’re going to wipe your backside with something, it really doesn’t need to be the highest quality paper!
How is paper recycled?
First of all, it has to be collected. If your city or locality has a recycling service for paper, then you’ll likely be given a set day when the pickup of your spare paper and cardboard will happen.
When it’s collected, it’s transported to a recycling center. Here, things that aren’t recyclable, and aren’t paper, are removed. This is done by workers on a line – and these workers have a tough enough job to do! .
Unfortunately, as you can imagine, some people aren’t the nicest or most considerate when it comes to getting rid of their trash and recycling – and sadly, some poor worker has to get rid of whatever crazy or nasty stuff they find before the paper and cardboard can be further processed. So, be nice to these people, and don’t put any nasty stuff in your recycling – paper and cardboard only, and nothing dangerous!
Next, the paper and cardboard have to be sorted into different grades. Once the sorting has happened, it’ll be transported to a paper mill for processing. At the paper mill is where the processing of the paper happens – it’s put into large pachines called pulpers that…
Well, they do exactly what their name implies! They shred the paper and cardboard into pieces and mix with water and a selection of chemicals, heating it all up to break the paper down into fibers again.
This pulp is then pressed through a screen, removing any contaminants, and is then sent through machines and chemical processes that clean and remove ink from it. The processed paper fibers are then sprayed while still wet onto (essentially) a conveyer belt, and heated through heated metal rollers, helping the fibers to bond together in large sheets.
This recycled paper is then rolled up – often into very large rolls – and will now be ready for use as new paper products!
Can paper be recycled forever?
Well, yes, but also unfortunately, no. Each piece of paper or cardboard can realistically only be recycled a finite number of times. After it’s been through the recycling process, the fibers actually start to break down – they become too short to be of any use for making new paper. At this point, they’ll need to be mixed with new, or “virgin” fibers.
This is what paper grading is all about when it comes to recycling – certain paper types, such as newspapers or packaging, are more likely to be made already from recycled material than other paper products – such as high quality office or photo paper.
The fact that these fibers become too short to make paper from means that it’s really important that paper is correctly graded before being processed – or the whole thing could end up being a waste of time and energy.
Recycling paper is something we all should do as much as we possibly can – after all, it’s one of the simplest ways that we can play a part in saving our environment, and still a really effective one!