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paperPaper and Paperboard Products

Paper and paperboard products include items you use every day—newspapers, food packaging, tissues, cardboard boxes, office paper, and paper plates. In fact, paper and paperboard products constitute the largest portion of municipal solid waste (MSW). As the greatest portion of the waste stream, paper also offers the greatest opportunity for recycling. Today, consumers buy recycled paper in newspapers, food packages, and office paper—some containing as much as 100 percent recycled fiber. Other uses of recovered paper include insulation, gypsum wallboard, fertilizer bags, and mulch.
Just the Facts

  • At about 29 percent, paper and paperboard products constitute the largest portion of the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream.
  • Americans generated more than 71 million tons of paper products in the MSW stream in 2010, nearly a three-fold increase from 1960.
  • About 62 percent of all paper and paperboard products in MSW were recovered in 2001, more than two-and-a-half times the percentage recovered in 1960.

Recycling rates (2010):

  • Corrugated boxes: 85 percent
  • Newspapers:72 percent
  • Office paper and magazines: 45 percent
  • Telephone Directories: 37 percent

Paper Making and Recycling

To make paper, a paper mill loads debarked and chipped wood into a large tank called a digester. The digester pressure cooks the chipped wood with water and a mixture of chemicals. The chips then stew in a chemical mix under pressure. The resulting pulp is washed, refined, and cleaned. In a separate process, the mill mixes shredded recycled paper with water, then cooks and cleans the mixture to create pulp. The paper mill blends in a certain percentage of pulp from recycled paper, depending on the desired characteristics of the finished product.

Paper reprocessors are very selective about the materials they use to make recycled-content products. High-grade papers like white office paper have long fibers, while low-grade papers like mixed paper have shorter fibers. Processors cannot mix low-grade papers with high-grade papers if they want to manufacture high-grade recycled-content white office paper. In the field of paper and paperboard recycling, the most preferable form of recycling is "first-tier" recycling, such as using recovered newspapers to make new newsprint. Therefore, paper mills commonly seek single-grade recycled paper. Corrugated cardboard, newspapers, and office papers are the most common single-grade waste streams (i.e., no other paper is mixed in, making it easier to "close the loop").