Although our world is increasingly digital, we still use paper quite regularly in our daily lives for various reasons.
And for those of us who still subscribe to print catalogs, magazines, and newspapers, we know how quickly they pile up.
After they’re read, can we recycle them? Or is it all destined to end up in landfills, as incinerated trash, or as litter?
Can I Recycle Paper, Catalogs, Magazines & Newspapers?
Yes, you can put printer paper, cardstock, envelopes, catalogs, newspapers, and magazines in curbside recycling!
According to the American Forest and Paper Association, other paper products that can be recycled include:
- Phone books
- Pizza boxes
- Other food containers (Just make sure they’re clean and dry).
However, certain kinds of paper are not recyclable, including:
- Used paper towels and plates
- Wax paper
- Tracing paper
- Laminated paper
- Toilet paper and paper towels. But you can recycle the cardboard tubes.
- Paper coffee cups. They include a plastic coating to keep your drink hot.
- Most recycling facilities do not accept tissue paper.
- Brightly colored paper. Muted tones and pastels are easier to recycle. This is because the rich color of one brightly colored paper will dye the rest of the paper in the recycling facility. Keeping all the paper a light color makes it easier to repurpose.
But what about…
- Sticky notes may classify as “mixed paper” because of their adhesive back. But some curbside recycling facilities don’t accept sticky notes because of their bright color. Call your local recycling center to check.
- Paper plates: if they’re clean, you can recycle them.
- Paper straws: mostly likely you can’t recycle them, because of a variety of reasons, but you can compost them.
- Shredded paper: Certain curbside programs accept shredded paper if bagged separately, so it could be worth calling them, but most do not. Instead of shredding paper, consider blacking out your sensitive information from papers, tearing them a few times, then recycling them. For documents that must be shredded, search your area for a facility that handles shredded paper for recycling.
- Greeting cards: you can recycle them, but first remove any non-paper aspects, like glitter or music playing devices.
- Wrapping paper: you can recycle regular and glossy wrapping paper. If the wrapping paper contains anything non-paper like glitter, plastic, etc., do not recycle.
- Receipts: paper ones are recyclable, but thermal ones aren’t. It’s very hard to tell the difference, so to be safe, just throw them all away.
- For juice boxes and milk cartons made from paper, it depends on your locality. Some accept this in curbside recycling, and some do not. Some accept paper packaging of non-refrigerated liquids such as soup and non-dairy milk. It’s best to call your local recycling facility to confirm.
- Some food containers are made of paper lined with plastic, which might not be accepted in your locality’s curbside recycling program. Call ahead first to check.
So why is some paper recyclable, and some types aren’t?
In the recycling process, the paper fibers are shortened. So it’s best to start out with a paper that has long, strong fibers. For example, printer paper can be recycled up to seven times because of its long fibers. Toilet paper, tissue paper, tissues, napkins, and paper towels have shorter fibers, so they cannot be recycled.
Is Paper Recycling Mandated Anywhere?
Yes, it is required by law to recycle paper in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C.. But if you live there and made a mistake with your paper recycling, don’t worry: landfills and waste collectors have regulations that ensure the paper will end up at the correct recycling center.
What Can I Do with Old Papers, Catalogs, Magazines & Newspapers?
It’s always good to have some on hand – if only to stick under a table leg to even out a lopsided table.
Crumpled up pages can be used as stuffing for packages. Newspapers make great wrapping paper for birthdays and holidays. If you have a traditional fireplace at home, or a bonfire area in the backyard, papers and newspapers make great kindling. Wrapping green tomatoes in a newspaper will ripen them faster, and wrapping apples in a newspaper will prevent them from rotting.
If you want to get creative by making a vision board or collage, cut out some inspirational photos from old magazines and catalogs. And papier mâché using newspaper combined with glue can keep kids entertained for hours.
Best of all, wet, shredded newspaper is very helpful for composting!
How is Paper Recycled?
Recycled paper uses 40% less energy to make as compared to paper from raw materials. Here’s how the process works:
- It begins at your recycling bin.
- At the Materials Recovery Facility, all the contaminants are removed on a conveyor belt.
- The paper is separated and sent to a paper mill.
- The pulper mixes paper with water, where it’s blended and broken down. This is where tape and staples get removed.
- The fibrous mixture is cleaned again, then dried, then rolled into paper. Good as new!
Adhesives, staples, inks, paper clips, and other materials are removed from the paper in this process. Of course, it’s still beneficial to make sure your paper is as clean as possible (definitely no food or grease) before putting it in the recycling bin.
What Can Be Made of Recycled Paper?
Paper can be recycled and made into a variety of paper products, including:
- Printer paper
- Facial tissues and toilet tissue
- Paper towels, dishware, and napkins
- Cards and envelopes
- Newspapers and magazines
- Nearly everything made of paper can also be made of recycled paper.
What are Easy Alternatives to Paper, Catalogs, Magazines, and Newspapers?
Opt for emailed billings and switch your subscriptions to online. But be aware that using the internet and technological products requires material and energy resources, too.
The best thing to do is just take stock of all the media you consume regularly. Do you read it and find value in it? If yes, great! But if you just collect and accumulate certain papers, catalogs, magazines, and newspapers out of habit, then consider taking a break. If you really miss them, you can always re-subscribe.
And don’t forget about your local library. They have books, periodicals, magazines, newspapers, and other media for free! Check out local used bookstores or book swaps as well.
What is Paper Made Of?
Paper these days is made from wood pulp from trees (virgin fiber) or from other recycled paper products. Some magazines and catalogs get their glossy finish from an enamel coating.
Are Paper Products Bad for the Environment?
According to the EPA, 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, 463 gallons of oil, over 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space are saved by recycling one ton of paper. That’s great news, but unfortunately, there is a downside to using paper products at all.
In the process of paper decomposing, methane is released. Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Paper comes from trees. If we want to slow global warming, we really should plant more trees to absorb carbon dioxide, not cut them down. When trees are burned to make paper, huge amounts of carbon dioxide are released as well. Plus, birds and other wildlife depend on trees as their habitats.
Producing paper also requires large amounts of water. (Read more about why water is a resource in need of conservation here.)
Additionally, paper mills cause pollution. They produce water filled with chlorine, metals, and cholates, which causes water and soil pollution. Paper mills commonly require oil as an energy source to run: over 250 gallons are needed to produce one ton of paper made from virgin wood pulp.
Although more and more companies go “paperless” by the day, the paper industry is still huge. It’s the fifth largest consumer of energy, using about 4% of the total energy used in the world. So the best course of action is to reduce your paper usage and repurpose the paper you have.
Final Thoughts on Recycling Paper Products
We use a lot of paper in the U.S. According to the EPA, 18.4 million tons of paper were accumulated in landfills in 2017. But we have made good progress recycling it: according to the American Forest & Paper Association, 65.7% of paper consumed in the U.S. was recycled in 2020. Still, there is room for improvement. Since 87% of us have access to curbside or drop-off recycling for paper, 87% seems like a good number to aim for in terms of recycling across the nation.
If you have excess paper products around the house, make sure you don’t thoughtlessly chuck them into the trash. Think of a practical or crafty use for them, or recycle them. And most importantly, try to reduce your paper usage. The planet will thank you.
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