Ideally, consumers and businesses would discard all of their waste paper into recycling systems that could reconstitute old paper into new paper, creating an endless loop of use and reuse. In reality, paper fibers degrade each time they are recycled and reused, sometimes refered to as downcycling. At best, paper can typically be recycled no more than five times before it loses essential qualities like fiber strength and length.1 Furthermore, different grades of discarded paper meet different standards of reusability. Corrugated cardboard and mixed paper, for example, 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.2
Paper mills have always thrown scraps and trimmings of high-grade paper back into their pulping processes as normal step in the business of making high-grade paper. This practice is nothing new, and it hardly counts as recycling. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency's standards for defining “recycled paper” are so loosely worded that this age-old practice became known as “recycling” with the stroke of a pen and with no real reduction in the amount of paper going to landfills.3, 4 The type of recycled paper that actually results in reductions to landfills is post consumer waste (PCW) recycled paper. A gradual improvement in PCW recycling rates in recent decades has contributed to a steady decline in the amount of paper going to U.S. landfills, down from 38.4 tons in 1993 to 18.4 tons in 2011.5 Even so, almost half (41%) of all municipal solid waste in the U.S. is paper and cardboard,6 and it takes up almost a third (28%) of the space in U.S. landfills.7
The field of solid waste management follows a generally accepted hierarchy of waste disposal options when considering which disposal practices cause less environmental damage. The options ranked in this hierarchy are: 1) source reduction including backyard composting (best), 2) recycling including centralized composting (next best), 3) incineration (not so good), and 4) landfill (worst). The EPA, the U.K. Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Environment, and the International Institute for Environmental Development (IIED) have all conducted studies that support the conclusions represented in this hierarchy.1
Our greatest goal must always be to reduce consumption. All consumption of paper, any paper, causes destruction of forests and causes pollution. To “reduce” paper usage is always best. To “reuse” paper is second best. And to “recycle” paper – either by producing new paper or by producing energy – should always come third.
It bears repeating: Our greatest goal must always be to reduce consumption. Reduce, reuse, recycle.