Decoding Paper Recycling

Paper might be the most widely recycled material, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to giving it a second life. To simplify matters, we’re breaking down what you need to know.

Posted: June 2020
On average, a piece of paper can be recycled seven times before its fibers are too short for reuse. That creates a lot of opportunity for recovered material, emphasis on the “opportunity”—certain types of paper will more reliably get shredded, pulped, bonded, and made new again than others. Newsprint, for example, can almost always be recycled; wallpaper and pizza boxes cannot. 

When paper does get recycled, the process benefits the earth in more ways than one. There are the simple facts, that less virgin material will be taken from commercial forests and less space used in landfills. But recycling paper also supports carbon sequestration, because it means less of the carbon that’s stored in paper fibers will get released back into the atmosphere upon degradation. Using recyclable paper, and making it easy for customers to recycle the paper they get from brands, feeds into a bigger picture of sustainable commerce. 

To take some of the guesswork out, check out our list of recyclable (or compostable) paper products. To learn more, read on.

Step 1:
Which Kinds of Paper Can You Recycle?  

As previously mentioned, not every iteration of a paper product can head to a recycling plant and get mulched into a new product. (It’s also worth noting that if any paper product gets contaminated with food, oil, grease, or liquids, it’s disqualified from recycling.) But it is possible to make an educated guess on whether you can, cannot, or can only sometimes recycle certain types of paper.

Yes, you can usually recycle...

  • Newsprint
  • Flattened cardboard (don’t worry about packing tape; most recycling plants will remove it)
  • White and pastel-colored printer paper
  • Paper with metallic foil stamping
  • Paper with staples or envelopes with windows (equipment at recycling plants will remove these)
  • To-go coffee cup sleeves

Sometimes you can recycle...

  • Glossy paper from magazines and catalogs
  • Shredded paper
  • Sticky notes
  • Gift wrap (try crumpling it—if it’s too stiff it likely contains plastic or metal and can’t be recycled)
  • Paper printed with toner

No, you typically cannot recycle... 

  • Laminated paper
  • Neon, dark, or otherwise heavily saturated papers (these inks will compromise the recycling process)
  • Household and hygiene products like toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels
  • Wax- or foil-lined products such as disposable coffee cups or takeout containers
  • Wallpaper
  • Pizza boxes
  • Egg cartons (compost these!)

Step 2:
What Can Brands Do?

Besides choosing materials from the “Yes, you can usually recycle” category, brands can also select paper that’s already gone through the recycling process. It doesn’t need to be fully recycled to make a difference: Using paper stock with as little as 30 percent post-consumer waste means your company relies less on virgin wood and helps to divert waste from landfills. It’s a step towards a circular economy.

Brands can also leverage package design to help customers responsibly dispose of packaging. For instance, Lumi’s ID system prints QR codes onto packaging; when a customer scans it and enters a zip code, the Lumi app surfaces up-to-date information on how and where to recycle the box or mailer. Likewise, How2Recycle’s labels take the confusion out of recycling iconography, replacing it with actionable instructions for consumers. 

There are other, simpler ways to stay informed. Every state and municipality follows different waste management policies, and scrap import policies and market demand determine recycling practices. Waste Dive’s recycling-centered news site lets you search by state to scan recent changes to recycling programs. To learn about city-specific curbside pickup programs, search Earth911. And remember, municipalities that don’t offer curbside pickup for homes or businesses may still have drop-off sites that accept recyclables.

Extra Credit:
Understanding the Paper Recycling Process

When paper arrives at a sorting facility, it gets graded and then forwarded onto other, more specific recycling plants. For instance, newsprint is lighter and therefore a different grade than heavier printer paper, and therefore may have a different buyer.

Paper then gets shredded and mixed with a chemical solution to break down the fibers, turning the remaining pulp into a slurry, oatmeal-like solution. Machinery removes contaminants (like staples, not food), and another chemical solution strips out inks. This new, clean pulp get pumped into a paper machine and steam rollers. Once it’s dry, flat, and smooth, it’s on its way to a new life as rolls and sheets of paper.

The more you know, the more powerful your decisions can be.

Literacy Library: Materials & Terminology

Written by Margaret Rhodes. Researched by Alice May Du.