Submitted: The Two Sides Team January 3, 2013
At the end of Christmas morning, many holiday revelers found themselves sitting cross-legged in the center of an enormous pile of wrapping paper and empty cardboard boxes. Some of that wrapping paper is made of recycled paper. As one Explainer reader crammed her used wrapping paper into the recycle bin for another go-around, she wondered: How many times can a piece of paper be recycled?
By Brian Palmer
Slate, December 27, 2012
At the end of Christmas morning, many holiday revelers found
themselves sitting cross-legged in the center of an enormous pile of
wrapping paper and empty cardboard boxes. Some of that wrapping paper is
made of recycled paper. As one Explainer reader crammed her used
wrapping paper into the recycle bin for another go-around, she wondered:
How many times can a piece of paper be recycled?
Five or six times, on average. At a recycling plant, paper is heated
and chopped into tiny bits to make a pulp. During that process, each of
the long fibers that characterize virgin paper has an approximately 20
percent chance of being cut into a strand thats too small to be useful
to paper makers. (Short strands of wood fiber make extremely weak paper,
and are suitable for newsprint or other applications in which quality
is less important.) In theory, a strand could survive the pulping
process unscathed for 20, 30, or 100 rounds of recycling, but the odds
suggest that a paper fiber only has about five lives.
Even if a paper fiber were to maintain its shape after several
instances of recycling, it would still lose some of its virgin
qualities. Paper that has been dried and then resoaked in water
undergoes a process known as hornification.
The internal structures contract, causing the fiber to collapse
slightly and lose structural integrity. Recyclers usually add virgin
paper to a batch of recycled pulp to combat hornification. In addition,
paper fibers are often lost in the washing process that separates ink
from paper. The papers brightness also fades each time it is recycled,
which is why some batches of earth-friendly paper have a slightly
grayish hue. (On a more positive note, recycled paper often has better
opacity than the more porcelain virgin version.)
Since paper loses quality after each recycling, there is a hierarchy
that paper descends on its way toward retirement. The fibers that make
up a piece of writing paper, for example, may be returned to a notepad
if they maintain most of their good qualities. As they age, however,
they typically are recycled into something less distinguished, like
facial tissues, milk cartons, or toilet paper. The corrugated boxes that
carried to your home Christmas presents purchased online will
eventually become shoe boxes or cereal boxes.
Theres a good chance you wont get to see your cardboard boxs next
life, no matter what form it takes after rising from the dead.
Approximately 40 percent of U.S. waste paper is shipped abroad,
often to China, which doesnt have enough forestland to feed the
countrys demand for paper. Waste for recycling is, in fact, the largest U.S. export to China,
according to some experts. Chinas hunger for used paper is a good
thing for recyclers. At times, the price of a ton of recyclable paper
has dropped below $5,
making the business nearly impossible without foreign demand and
government requirements that paper contain a certain percentage of