Introduction to Paper Recycling

Stack of papers
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Recycling has become a popular industry in the United States due to a growing interest in saving the planet. Paper recycling makes up a large segment of the industry and is defined as the range of activities associated with the recovery and processing of scrap paper so that it can be used in the production of new paper products.  

Learn about the history, process, and legislation involving paper recycling, as well as business opportunities in the industry.

History of Paper Recycling in the United States

The Rittenhouse Mill was America's first paper mill, which opened in Philadelphia in 1690. However, municipal paper recycling didn't start until 1874 in Baltimore, Maryland, followed by New York City, which opened its first recycling center that same year.

On April 28, 1800, Matthias Koops, an English papermaker, was granted the first patent for paper recycling. His patent application involved extracting ink from printed and written paper and converting the paper into pulp to make new paper. This process was later adopted by paper mills worldwide.

During World War II (1939-1945), paper recycling efforts resurfaced when, due to a major shortage of paper pulp, people were asked to save used paper and rags to make new paper.

Recycling in the United States has shown continued growth. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that from 1960 to 2017, recycling of paper and paperboard products increased from approximately 5 million tons to 44 million tons. In 2017, the recycling rate was 65.9%, which was among the highest compared to other materials in municipal solid waste. In 2018, that percentage increased to 68.1%.

Recyclable and Non-Recyclable Paper

Nearly all kinds of paper are recyclable. Paper items that are not typically acceptable in collection bins include brown and craft envelopes, carbon paper, paper towels, tissues, candy wrappers, coffee cups, and pizza boxes. Some of the most commonly recycled paper items include cardboard, newsprint and magazines, manuals and booklets, and office paper.

In the United States, paper-making materials come from three primary sources:

  1. Recycled paper: 33%
  2. Whole trees and other plants: 33%
  3. Wood chips and scraps from sawmills: 33%

First Phase of Paper Recycling Process

The paper recycling process involves several steps that begin with the collection, transportation, and sorting:

  1. Collection. Waste papers are collected from collection bins and deposited in a large recycling container along with the paper received from other collection bins.
  2. Transportation. All of the recovered or collected paper waste then gets transported to the paper recycling plant on a collection van or truck.
  3. Sorting. After getting transported to the recycling plant, the papers are sorted into different paper categories, such as cardboard, newspapers, newsprint, magazine paper, and computer paper.

Manufacturing recycled copy paper saves 100% of the trees, 31% of the energy and 53% of the water, and produces 39% less solid waste.

Main Phase of the Paper Recycling Process

Once the paper is sorted, it is processed into usable raw materials. This phase involves multiple functions that include:

  • Making pulp or slurry: Pulping involves water and chemicals. To pulp the paper, machines first chop it before water and chemicals are added. The mixture is then heated to break down the paper into paper fibers. Finally, the mixture turns into a mushy mix, known as a slurry or pulp.
  • Pulp screening and cleaning: To remove contamination from the pulp, the pulp is forced through screens with holes of different sizes and shapes to remove contaminants such as globs of glue and bits of plastic. If the pulp still contains any heavy contaminants like staples, the pulp may be spun around in huge cone-shaped cylinders. The cylinders throw the heavy contaminants out of the cone using centripetal force, while light contaminants move to the center of the cone and are removed.
  • De-inking: Next begins the removal of ink from the paper fibers of the pulp, while sticky materials, known as “stickies,” are also separated. De-inking is done through a combination of mechanical actions like shredding and the addition of chemicals. Light and small ink particles are removed using water, while heavier and larger particles are removed using air bubbles in a process called flotation.
  • Refining, color stripping, and bleaching: In the refining stage, the pulp is beaten to make the paper fibers swell. Beating the pulp also separates individual fibers to facilitate new paper production from the separated fibers. If coloring is required, color stripping chemicals are added to the fibers to remove the dyes from the paper. When the goal is to produce white recycled paper, the pulp is bleached with oxygen, chlorine dioxide, or hydrogen peroxide to make them brighter or whiter.

Final Phase of the Paper Recycling Process

In the final stage of the paper recycling process, the cleaned paper pulp is then ready to be used in the production of new paper. Normally, the pulp is blended with virgin wood fibers to provide the new paper with added smoothness and strength. However, the recycled paper fibers can also be used alone. At this stage, the paper pulp is mixed with chemicals and hot water. The percentage of hot water in the mixture is far greater than that of paper fibers and chemicals. 

The mixture is fed into the headbox of a papermaking machine and sprayed in a continuous jet onto a large wire mesh-like screen moving very fast through the machine. As the water from the mixture starts to drain, the recycled paper fibers begin to bond to form a watery sheet. The sheet moves quickly through a series of felt-cover press-rollers that squeeze out more water resulting in a freshly manufactured sheet of paper.

Business Opportunities in Paper Recycling

Paper recycling is a well-established and capital-intensive part of the recycling industry. Paper recycling can be a useful extension of services for companies that recycle other materials. However, at the entrepreneurial level, there are opportunities available in the provision of services such as collection, transportation, and sorting.

In the past, recyclers were likely to remove only a specific recyclable material from a customer, such as pallets or scrap metal, but service-oriented recyclers are increasingly offering to remove other recyclable materials at the same time. Old corrugated cardboard (OCC) is being collected more frequently as part of dock sweep programs, where a recycler will take away a range of recyclable products from a location at the same time, on the same truck. Such programs are attractive to customers in terms of helping them to remove the materials on a timely basis rather than having to wait to accumulate a full load of a single material.

One entrepreneurial activity associated with paper recycling is paper shredding. According to insiders, an investment in the $30,000–$60,000 range is required to purchase a truck and shredding machine combination. Revenue is derived from businesses requiring confidential shredding services, as well as selling the shredded paper to the recycling plant. 

Paper Recycling Legislation

The requirements for recycling paper in the United States vary by state. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia have passed laws requiring that all paper grades are to be recycled. California requires that businesses recycle newspaper, and in Connecticut, it is mandatory that all waste generators recycle newspapers, magazines, and white and colored office paper. Maine, South Dakota, and Virginia have also adopted targeted mandatory paper recycling requirements.

Paper Recycling Industry Associations

Companies interested in joining a paper recycling organization may want to consider the following:

  • The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA): AF&PA is the national trade association of forest product industry, which represents all the paper-based products producing companies in the country and promotes sustainable U.S. forest products in the international marketplace. The AF&PA members produce around 75% of paper-based products in the U.S.
  • Independent Waste Paper Processors Association (IWPPA): Established in 1975, IWPPA is the trade association for companies in the paper product industry in the UK. The association has a total of 80 member companies with a combined yearly turnover of more than £2 billion. The members of the association produce over 2 million tons of recyclate.
  • The Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI): CPI is another trade association for UK paper-based product producers and recyclers with over 70 member companies. CPI member companies have an aggregate yearly turnover of £6.5 billion.
  • European Recovered Paper Association (ERPA): ERPA is a European trade association that represents recovered paper federations of different European countries. The paper recovery and recycling federations from Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Finland are members of ERPA. 

Current Trends in Paper Recycling

The paper recycling rate continues to improve, although the industry has been negatively impacted by depressed global prices and challenges associated with contamination during the curbside recycling process. One positive development has been an increase in curbside OCC generation, which is attributed to the growth of e-commerce and home delivery. Paper is increasingly used more for packaging and less for communication, resulting in an evolving mix of material being generated.