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Recycled Paper

Photographer Chris Jordan created a mandala in 2011 from 9,600 mail order catalogs. It represents the number of catalogs printed, shipped, and delivered every three seconds, 97 percent of which are disposed of the day they arrive. This is part of a larger series titled “Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait.” This piece is called Three Second Meditation.

Paper use globally is on the rise, particularly for packaging materials. Roughly half of paper is used once and then sent to the proverbial scrap heap. But the other half is recovered and repurposed. In some places, that recovery rate reaches 75 percent. Bringing the world up to that level can reduce emissions of the paper industry, estimated to be as high as 7 percent annually.

Recycling makes paper’s journey circular, rather than a straight line from logging to landfill. Instead of relying on fresh timber to feed the pulping process—and releasing carbon with each tree cut—recycled paper draws on existing material, either discarded before reaching a consumer’s hands or, ideally, after serving its intended purpose. Instead of releasing methane as it decomposes in a landfill, wastepaper finds new life.

Once recovered, used paper is shredded, pulped, cleaned, and rid of contaminants. It can then be made into any number of products, from office paper to newsprint to toilet paper rolls. A particular piece of paper can be reprocessed roughly five to seven times, before fibers are no longer viable. In addition to curbing emissions, recycled paper spares forests and reduces water use.


paper use…on the rise: Nordström, Per-Ove, and Glen O’Kelly. “Tighter Recycled Fiber Markets: Softwood Strikes Back!” McKinsey on Paper, no. 3, 2013; Poyry. Future from Fibre: From Forest to Finished Product. Gland, Switzerland: World Business Council for Sustainable Development, 2012.

half [of paper] is recovered: Nordström and O’Kelly, “Markets.”

Northern Europe…recovery rate: Hansen, Eric, Rajat Panwar, and Richard Vlosky. The Global Forest Sector: Changes, Practices, and Prospects. CRC Press, 2013.

South Korea…recovery rate: WWF. Living Forest Report. Chapter 4. Gland, Switzerland: World Wide Fund for Nature, 2012.

emissions of the paper industry: EEPN. “Paper Vapour: The Climate Impact of Paper Consumption.” Lochinver, Scotland: European Environmental Paper Network, 2013.

piece of paper…reprocessed: Nordström and O’Kelly, “Markets.”

jobs and…economic value: R.W. Beck, Inc. U.S. Recycling Economic Information Study. National Recycling Coalition, 2001; Tellus Institute. From Waste to Jobs: What Achieving 75 Percent Recycling Means for California. New York: Natural Resources Defense Council, 2014.

emissions [vs.] virgin [paper]: EEPN, “Paper Vapour.”

study [of emissions]: EEPN, “Paper Vapour.”

life cycle assessment: Schultz, Tobias. Life Cycle Assessment of Reincarnation 100 Coated Freesheet Paper, Compared to Virgin Paper Baseline. Emeryville, CA: SCS Global Services, 2015.

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