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Understanding Paper and Paper Recycling

In this era of digital communication, we have not become the paperless society that was predicted. Paper is still very much a part of our daily lives. Think about it: a greeting card that wishes you a happy birthday or some other sentiment is printed on paper. Magazines, newspapers, books—they are all printed on paper. Food products, toys and other hard goods come in cardboard packaging. Your online shopping orders are delivered in corrugated boxes or padded paper envelopes. They are all made from paper.

The same goes for the funny greeting cards we offer at NobleWorks Cards. We know the pros and cons of recycling paper, and we've adapted our business to offer birthday cards, holiday cards, anniversary cards and many more made from post-recycled content. We also use print-on-demand techniques to ensure we don't waste energy or resources.

What happens to all that paper once we are done with it? At one time, we just threw it away with the garbage and it went to the dump, but no longer is that the case. Much of our wastepaper now is recycled.

Recycling, especially the recycling of paper, is not a new concept. However, it was the establishment of Earth Day in the 1960s that gave the concept impetus; and the recycling of certain materials—paper, glass and metal—became a popular trend to protect our natural resources and keep reusable materials out of the waste stream.

Today, recycling is more than just a trend; it is a necessity. With more open spaces being developed and landfill areas closing, the need for reducing dumped waste materials has grown. Many of us now diligently save our paper, plastics and metals to be taken to recycling centers and made into new materials. And that is a good thing, right? Yes and no. Recycling has its good points and not-so-good points. Let's take paper as an example.

What We Know About Paper

Here are a few facts and figures:
  • Most paper today, an estimated 90+%, is made from cellulose fiber from the wood of trees.
  • More than 70 million tons of paper products are made every year—that's more than two million books, 350 million magazines, and 24 billion newspapers, not to mention a whole lot of greeting cards.
  • For the Sunday newspaper each week, 500,000 trees must be cut down. The Sunday edition of The New York Times alone requires 75,000 trees worth of paper.
  • Each year, the average household throws away 13,000 separate pieces of paper each year, mostly junk mail and packaging.
  • The single largest category of paper use today, about 41%, is for packaging.
  • Although trees are a "renewable resource," at one time, many old-growth forests were harvested and replaced by "plantations" of a faster-growing species of tree managed for papermaking. This limited the biodiversity of a natural forest. On the plus side, about 35,323,927 acres of forest have been certified in the U.S. by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – an organization that promotes "environmentally sound, socially beneficial and economically prosperous management of the world's forests." Many paper manufacturers now purchase wood from FSC-certified providers.
  • The wastepaper recycling process involves mixing used/old paper with water and chemicals to break it down. It is then chopped up and heated to break it down further into strands of cellulose; this mixture is the "pulp." After a more thorough cleaning process to remove ink and other contaminants, the pulp is mixed again with water and made into new recycled paper.

Paper Terms

  • Virgin Paper: paper made from cellulose fiber from the wood of trees that is newly pulped; it has never been previously used.
  • Recycled Paper: there are two types of recycled paper:
    • Post-Consumer Recovered Fiber Paper: Contains 100% post-consumer recovered fiber (i.e., totally made from what we save to be recycled).
    • Recovered Fiber Paper: Made from "mill broke," which is paper-manufacturing waste, or from "pre-consumer," which is unused, finished, obsolete papers (i.e. paper that never gets to the end-consumer, such as magazine overruns, outdated forms, etc.).
  • Recycled Content Paper: paper containing less than 100% post-consumer waste. This paper is a mixture of recycled paper content and new "virgin" fiber.

Recycled Paper: The Good

  • In the U.S., we recover more that 63% of all paper for recycling, nearly double the rate in 1990.
  • According to the EPA, recycling causes 35% less water pollution and 74% less air pollution than making virgin paper.
  • Recycling one ton (2,000 pounds) of paper products can save:
    • 17 trees.
    • 380 gallons of oil or more.
    • 3 cubic yards of landfill space.
    • 4,000 kilowatts of energy.
    • 7,000 gallons of water.
      This represents a 64% energy savings, a 58% water savings, and 60 pounds less of air pollution.
  • The 17 trees that are saved can remove 250 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air and produce enough oxygen for 51 people to breathe.
  • The manufacture of recycled paper involves between 28% and 70% less energy consumption than that of virgin paper.

Recycled Paper: The Bad

  • Not all of our collected paper gets recycled. According to an article in The New York Times (May 29, 2018), nearly one-third of the 66 million tons of material that Americans recycle is exported. However, since the beginning of 2018, China has banned the import of various types of plastic and paper, leaving some waste-management companies with few alternatives other than sending that paper to the landfill.
  • Recycling mills are known for producing sludge, which is the runoff that includes ink, adhesives and other unusable material removed from the usable fiber. Those pollutants end up in landfills or incinerator emissions. On a more positive note, recycling mills have developed environmentally controlled methods of handling sludge.
  • Paper can only be recycled five to seven times before the fibers become too short to be of use. New fibers need to be introduced to add strength.
  • Not all paper can be recycled. Because shredding shortens the length of paper fibers, shredded paper cannot be recycled. Other non-recyclable paper items include: frozen-food containers, foil-lined or coated containers such as coffee cups, juice boxes or milk cartons; and heavily soiled products such as greasy pizza boxes and paper plates.

What Can You Do?

First and foremost, be a conscious consumer. Look for products made of recycled paper materials, especially "100% post-consumer waste recycled" or materials that came from sustainably managed forests. You can also observe the mantra: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

But before you rethink sending an e-card in lieu of that paper greeting card to someone special, keep in mind that there is nothing that can replace the thrill of receiving something in the mail (or in person) with that personal touch of a handwritten note and signature. We help you make informed decisions: on each of our product pages, you'll find a breakdown of the card's paper content.

The New York Times, May 29, 2018. "Your Recycling Gets Recycled, Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not"