Paper Recycling Facts, Figures and Information Sources

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Over 68 million tons of paper and paperboard products are recovered annually in the U.S., achieving a recycling rate of 64.7 percent. Paper recycling has long been a success story in terms of recovery, and one that continues to improve over time. Here are some basic facts and figures pertaining to paper recycling:

  • The world’s first piece of paper was made by Ts`ai Lun in 105 AD.
  • In the 20 years following 1990, the recovery rate for paper almost doubled in the U.S. In 2011, 66.8 percent of the U.S. paper consumed was recovered.
  • The paper recovery rate remains strong, meeting or exceeding 63 percent each year since 2009; reaching 65.8 percent in 2017, according to the American Forest & Paper Association. This rate was down slightly from 67.2 percent registered in 2016, with the dip attributed to more strict import requirements imposed by China.
  • In 2017, 36 percent of the paper and paperboard recovered in the U.S. went to produce containerboard, the material used for corrugated boxes, and 12 percent was used for boxboard, which includes basestock for folding boxes and gypsum wallboard facings, according to AFPA. Exports of recovered paper dropped from 40 percent in 2016 to 37.7 percent in 2017.
  • Only roughly 22 million tons of paper went into landfills in 2017, down from 36 million tons a decade earlier.
  • The University of Southern Indiana reports that every ton of recycled paper can spare 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, 4,000 kilowatts of energy, 7,000 gallons of water and three cubic yards of space at the landfill.
  • The same source notes that the cost to construct a paper mill that will use recycled paper is 50 to 80 percent lower than the investment required for a mill relying on virgin pulp.
  • Statistica reports that 51 percent of U.S. households have a full curbside recycling service, and another 20 percent have a curbside pickup of some materials in 2017.
  • In 2010, 87 percent of the population had access to curbside and/or drop-off paper recycling.
  • Over one-third of new paper is produced with recycled fiber. Other fiber sources include whole trees and plants (one-third), as well as residue from sawmills (one-third). By weight, paper comprises more than a third of all recyclables collected in the US, nearly 45 million tons in 2010.
  • Paper cannot be recycled indefinitely. With every recycling, fibers become shorter. After being processed five to seven times, the fibers become too short for the production of new paper, requiring the addition of new fibers.
  • Two-thirds of packaging material recovered for recycling is paper, more than the combined total of glass, metal, and plastic. According to municipal solid waste data from the EPA, only 32.5 percent of glass, 55.1 percent of aluminum and 31.2 percent of PET bottles and jars were recycled in 2014.
  • On a daily basis, U.S. papermakers recycle enough paper to fill a 14-mile long train of boxcars.
  • Paper recycling supports carbon sequestration.

Some of the facts and figures mentioned in this article were found at the following locations:

Be sure to read my article about the logistics of paper recycling, as well as my paper recycling glossary of terms.