November 15th is America Recycles Day. It serves as a reminder of the importance of recycling, the positive impact recycling can have on our landfills, and how much the recycling infrastructure has evolved over the last few decades in the U.S.
Paper is one of the most recycled products in the world. Since the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA) began tracking paper recycling in North America in 1990, the recovery rate has nearly doubled. According to the AF&PA, the U.S. paper recovery rates have grown from 33.5% in 1990 to 65.8% in 2017, with a goal to reach 70% by 2020. Because of additional recycling, the amount of paper products diverted to landfills has decreased over 38% in the past ten years from 36 million tons in 2007 to about 22 million tons in 2017. In 2014, paper and packaging accounted for nearly 75% of all products recycled in the U.S. – more than glass, steel, aluminum, and plastics combined.
Recycling plays a critical role in the circular economy, where the reuse, refurbishment, recycling, and end-of-life disposal of a product factors into the manufacturing design. Recycled paper is often a key raw material used in paper production. A combination of fresh wood supply and recycled paper allows printing and writing paper to be down-cycled to other products like corrugated boxes, tissue, and other packaging. 36% of the paper and paperboard recovered in the U.S. is used to produce containerboard (i.e., the material used for corrugated boxes) and 12% to produce boxboard, which includes base stock for folding boxes and gypsum wallboard facings. Paper can be recycled up to 7 times before requiring the addition of new wood fibers (also called virgin fiber). The good news is that the U.S. is a global leader in sustainable forest management, including the implementation of standards by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council.
There are multiple benefits of paper recycling: extending the supply of wood fiber, reducing methane emissions from paper in landfills which can contribute to climate change, reducing the amount of energy needed to produce certain papers, and saving space in landfills.