Beginning in the 1980s, recycling became the answer to seemingly all our environmental troubles. Recycling promised to help us reduce and reuse, all to the benefit of Mother Nature.


Fast forward 30 years and progress in recycling efforts is clear – particularly with paper.   A record-high 67.2 percent of all paper used in the United States was recovered for recycling in 2016, more than double the rate of 33.5 percent in 1990. That makes paper one of the most recycled products on the planet.


While there are obvious benefits to the endeavor, the realities of recycling are not so clear cut. Cost has increased. Value for recycled content decreased. And most disconcerting, people still do not know how to recycle properly.


Widespread moves to single-stream collection, where plastics, papers and glass are deposited together into a single collection truck for convenience, have backfired. Recycling bins are too often loaded with plastic grocery bags, diapers and dirty food containers which contaminate the recycling process or create added cost as workers must hand pluck these no-no items from the recycling line at sorting facilities.


In fact, the percentage of non-recyclables that end up going to the dump was found to be between 25 and 40 percent in some cases.


According to a recent USA Today article, municipalities across the United States are still working to educate citizens on what and how to recycle while other communities are conducting what are being called “curbside audits,” where collectors leave behind items that cannot be recycled. And others still are refusing to collect recycling entirely when bins are filled with garbage.


The result is waste and inefficiency for a system that is supposed to reduce burdens on the environment.  This makes the maximum recovery rate of 80 percent for paper increasingly difficult.


But why just 80 percent instead of 100? Well, paper recycling has its limits.


Bathroom tissue and greasy food boxes cannot be recycled for obvious sanitary reasons. Some paper, such as books or birth certificates, have long shelf lives. Paper can also only be recycled up to seven times before its fibers become so small or weak they are no longer useful.


Which then begs the question: As consumers, when should we demand recycled content?


Domtar is attempting to help answer that question.  In 2014, Domtar joined the American Forest & Paper Association and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (commonly known as MIT) to find the answer through a study on paper flow in the United States. Together, the hope is to provide data on where recycled content should be used in order to have the lowest impact on the environment.


Stay tuned for an update on the study’s findings. Until then, it is critical to continue recycling correctly, while keeping in mind the role new wood fiber sourced from responsibly-managed forests plays in the process. After all, if not for new fiber, there would be no recycled paper.  For more information on the how, when and why of recycling, check out this article.


For more information on where your paper comes from, visit the Paper Trail.