Understanding recycled content
Paper mills have always put scraps and trimmings of high-grade paper back into their pulping processes when making high-grade paper. Known as pre-consumer recycled content, this reuses waste from the manufacturing process and is considered standard practice among most mills.
The type of recycled content that actually diverts paper from landfills is called post consumer waste (PCW) recycled paper. This is paper that is collected from recycling programs and used to make new paper. Using post consumer waste creates a market for recycled paper, bolsters recycling programs, and reduces the need for harvesting plantation trees or virgin forests.
Fibers can't be endlessly recycled
Ideally, consumers and businesses would send all of their waste paper to recycling plants that could create new paper in an endless loop of reuse. In reality, paper fibers degrade each time they are recycled- paper can typically be recycled no more than five times before it loses essential qualities like fiber strength and length.
Different grades of paper need to be handled separately during the recycling process. For example, corrugated cardboard and mixed paper are only suitable for recycling into low-grade paper that is used in products like brown bags, paper board, and egg cartons. High-grade recycled paper, like the kind that is needed for printing, can only be made from similar high-grade paper (Source).
China's "National Sword" policies
At least half of the world’s waste paper, metals and used plastic is sent to China for processing (Source). Beginning in 2017, China enacted a ban on incoming waste materials as a way of curbing its pollution. The ban includes mixed paper, mixed plastics, stainless steel scrap, titanium scrap and wood waste, along with dozens more materials. Waste management companies across the US now have nowhere to send their collected recyclables for processing, and many are forced to stockpile or landfill the recyclables. One of the largest waste management companies, Republic Services, has reportedly sent over 2,000 tons of paper to landfills (Source).
China has also tightened its quality standards, putting in place a 0.5% contamination limit in March 2018. Contamination is the trash or other non-accepted material that ends up in the recycling stream. Commingled recycling programs, in which plastic, glass, metals, and paper are placed together into a single recycling bin, often have contamination rates as high as 25% (Source). Paper that is damp or covered in food will not meet China's new quality standards, and is being rejected during inspections at Chinese ports.
As paper faces new recycling challenges, businesses and consumers can do their part by putting only clean, dry, and regionally-accepted material into their recycling bin. Most importantly, we can reduce our paper use and look for ways to support local recycling markets.