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Paper recycling information sheet


* why bother? * what the law says 
* how's, what's and where's of recycling paper  * sources of further information 


The first piece of paper as we know it was produced from rags in AD 105 by Ts'ai Luin, who was part of the Eastern Han Court of the Chinese Emperor Ho Ti.

Paper is made from cellulose fibre, the source of which can be pulped wood, or a variety of other materials such as rags, cotton, grasses, sugar cane, straw, waste paper, or even elephant dung! In this country, wood pulp is the most common source material for the manufacture of virgin paper, i.e. paper which has no recycled content.

In 2004 recycled paper and board provided about 74% of the source materials for the 6.2million tonnes of paper manufactured in the UK's 76 paper and board mills. A further 7.7 million tonnes were imported.

There are different sources of waste fibre used as a source material for manufacturing recycled paper.

Mill Broke is "waste" paper which has never been used, either printers' off cuts or rolls damaged during production. When mixed with water the fibres are freed into pulp. The National Association of Paper Manufacturers does not recognise a paper as recycled if it contains more than 25% mill broke and/or virgin wood pulp.

The recycling of paper which has been printed on and used is known as "post-consumer waste". It is more problematic, (see de-inking below), but it is still worthwhile. Paper cannot be recycled indefinitely, it can only be recycled 4-6 times, as the fibres get shorter and weaker each time. Some virgin pulp must be introduced into the process to maintain the strength and quality of the fibre, so no matter how much we recycle we will never eradicate the need for virgin fibre.


Why bother?

In 2003/04, paper and card accounted for almost a third of all household waste collected for recycling, with almost 1.3 million tonnes being collected in England. This means, however, that there is still a considerable amount that isn't recycled and is largely going to landfill or incineration.

Although the raw material for making paper is predominantly trees, it is a common misconception that recycling waste paper saves trees. Trees are grown for commercial use and harvested as a long term crop with new trees planted to replace those cut down. In addition, papermakers are able to use the parts of the trees that cannot be used in other industries such as construction and furniture making. Different species of trees provide fibres that are used in different types of paper. Coniferous softwoods such as spruce, pine birch and cedar produce fibres which are long (average fibre length is 3mm) and are used to make papers which have a lot of strength. Hardwoods such as birch and aspen do not grow as fast as softwoods and produce short fibres (average fibre length 1mm) which are used for bulky papers such as writing paper and fluting, which is the middle part of cardboard. Nearly all paper is made from wood grown in these "sustainable" forests. The more important environmental issues are:

  1. The nature of forests and where they are situated. As the demand for paper has increased, more timber has been needed to meet the demand for wood pulp. In some cases this has meant the loss of valuable wildlife habitats and ecosystems, as old forests have been replaced by managed plantations, usually of fast-growing conifers. The lack of tree species diversity in managed forests has a direct impact on the biodiversity of the whole forest.

  2. By using waste paper to produce new paper disposal problems are reduced.

    For every tonne of paper used for recycling the savings are:

    • at least 30000litres of water

    • 3000 - 4000 KWh electricity (enough for an average 3 bedroom house for one year)

    • 95% of air pollution.

  3. Producing recycled paper involves between 28 - 70% less energy consumption than virgin paper and uses less water. This is because most of the energy used in papermaking is the pulping needed to turn wood into paper.
  4. Recycled paper produces fewer polluting emissions to air (95% of air pollution) and water. Recycled paper is not usually re-bleached and where it is, oxygen rather than chlorine is usually used. This reduces the amount of dioxins which are released into the environment as a by-product of the chlorine bleaching processes.
  5. Paper is a biodegradable material. This means that when it goes to landfill, as it rots, it produces methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas (20 times more potent than carbon dioxide). It is becoming increasingly accepted that global warming is a reality, and that methane and carbon dioxide emissions have to be reduced to lessen its effects. Please see our energy information sheet for more information on this.

About one fifth of the contents of household dustbins consist of paper and card, of which half is newspapers and magazines. This is equivalent to over 4kg of waste paper per household in the UK each week.

Pie chart breakdown of household waste composition

Source: Analysis of household waste composition and factors driving waste increases - Dr. J. Parfitt, WRAP, December 2002


How's, what's and where's of recycling paper

What are the main types of paper in everyday use which can be recycled?

  1. Office white paper
  2. Newspapers, magazines, telephone directories and pamphlets
  3. Cardboard
  4. Mixed or coloured paper
  5. Computer print out paper

If you have junk mail, windowed envelopes, or Yellow Pages then please contact you local authority. These materials can be more awkward to recycle, and the availability of recycling facilities varies around the country.

There are also different grades of paper and board collected mainly from agricultural and industrial sources. There are actually about 50 different grades for paper recycling companies to grapple with! You can find details of the other grades here on this website: www.letsrecycle.com/materials/paper/specifications.jsp

What can I do to reduce the amount of paper being wasted?

  1. Try not to use as much in the first place! Use the back of sheets of paper as well as the front - look to see if that piece of paper you were going to put in the bin could be used as scrap paper for many uses eg to make a shopping list, to jot down your dental appointment or to leave a note for someone.
  2. Buy recycled paper products wherever possible.

    Fibre from recycled telephone directories and yellow pages is being used to make egg cartons, cat litter, jiffy bags and animal bedding among other things!

  3. Reuse envelopes - sticky labels to cover the old address and re-seal the envelope are widely available, also made from recycled paper. Many charities sell them, so you can support them at the same time.
  4. Playgroups and schools may appreciate being given odd rolls of wallpaper, or any other kind of paper, for painting on or for other uses in the classroom. They are also often glad to receive newspapers to cover the tables for craft activities.
  5. When you buy a pint of milk or a soft drink, think about the container it is in. Is there an accessible recycling bank for the packaging, or might you end up throwing it away? It would be better to choose the product in the container you know you can dispose of locally for recycling.
  6. Contact The Mailing Preference Service (details under further contacts) to avoid receiving unsolicited mail.
  7. By putting a "no junk mail" sign by your letterbox you can cut junk mail such as pizza delivery leaflets by around 90%.
  8. Contact the BioRegional Development Group for information about paper made from fibres other than wood pulp.

Where can I take paper for recycling?

If your council doesn't pick up paper for recycling via a kerbside scheme, they may have some collection points for newspaper, magazines and telephone directories. For example, there may be paper banks at shopping centres and at civic amenity sites. Go to http://www.recyclenow.com/. This website allows you to obtain a list of the nearest recycling banks to you. All you have to do is enter your postcode to find your nearest recycling banks!

The Yellow Pages Directory Recycling Scheme offers a freephone recycling helpline - 0800 671 444 - which provides advice on where and how to recycle old Yellow Pages directories. Opportunities to recycle the old Yellow Pages range from kerbside schemes and recycling banks at local supermarkets and bring sites, to schools recycling initiatives as part of the Yellow Woods Challenge - http://www.yellow-woods.co.uk/. Please see the further information further information section for further details.

If you do not have a kerbside collection, or local drop off scheme, then make your visits to collection points as you are passing - don't make a special journey in the car to take any materials for recycling - you could be using more energy and causing more atmospheric pollution than you are saving!

What about large quantities of paper, such as that collected by offices?

There are many waste paper merchants and national paper collection companies which will collect a quantity of paper for recycling. In the first instance contact whoever is already dealing with your normal waste, as many waste management companies now also provide recycling services. Alternatively, a quick scan through the local business directory should provide some numbers for recycling collectors.

What about milk and juice cartons made from paper? Can they be recycled?

Cartons are not made from paper alone but comprise of about 75% paper, 20% plastic (polyethylene) and 5% aluminium foil. As they are an amalgam of materials, they cannot be recycled along with ordinary paper. They can be reprocessed into other items or incinerated to produce energy, or landfilled. There are very few collection points for the reprocessing of such cartons in this country, although a reprocessing plant was recently constructed in Scotland. Contact The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment for further details.

Why should I buy recycled paper products?

The future of recycling ultimately depends on there being a market for the materials collected. Recycling is not just collecting materials and taking them to the recycling bank, it is about "closing the loop" and buying recycled too. Paper mills cannot continue to produce recycled paper if people do not buy items made from it.

Where can I buy recycled paper products?

Recycled paper made up 75.5% of the raw materials for UK newspapers in 2004

Most supermarkets and high street stationers now sell a range of recycled products, such as writing paper, notebooks, file paper, diaries with recycled paper content, calendars, paper tablecloths and napkins, tissues, toilet rolls, kitchen paper and other items. If you cannot see the product you want and you think it could be available made from recycled materials, ask if the shop intends to stock such things in the future - if a lot of people ask, it may encourage the shop to add to its recycled range. The retailer needs to have an incentive to stock the products.

Some charities also sell recycled products such as greetings cards and stationery through their mail order catalogues. Contact the ones you would be interested in supporting and ask if they have a catalogue.

Many printers and office stationery suppliers now use or sell recycled paper. You could ask your usual supplier to make it available, or look in the Yellow Pages for local suppliers.

WRAP produces the Recycled Products Guide which lists recycled products available in this country. Visit the site at http://www.recycledproducts.org.uk/ or call WRAP on 08080 1002040 for further details.

What about the ink on the paper collected? How is it removed?

Sometimes the ink is not removed from the paper when it is reprocessed. The ink is dispersed into the pulp, discolouring it slightly, which is why recycled paper can have a greyish tinge. If the paper is to be de-inked, this can be done in one of two ways, by washing or flotation.

Washing - As the paper is pulped, chemicals can be added which separate the ink from the paper and allow it to be washed away in the large amounts of water used. (The water can then be cleaned and re-used.)

Flotation - Air can be passed through the pulp, producing foam which will hold at least half of the ink and can be skimmed off.

Sometimes the pulp is also bleached; hydrogen peroxide and chlorine are commonly used bleaches, though the former is the more acceptable as it breaks down into water and oxygen on disposal. Chlorine can combine with organic matter under certain conditions to produce organo carbons, including dioxins, which are toxic pollutants.

Although the de-inking process uses water and chemicals, it is still less harmful to the environment than the manufacturing process of new paper.

If you are buying paper in bulk for an office or business, it is worth looking for a supplier who can tell you what the recycled fibre content is, and whether it has been bleached using chlorine, as this is best avoided.

Approximately 20% of waste paper is lost as ink or plastics or because fibres are too weak.

What the law says

At present there are no laws directly targeting paper recycling. Paper, as a biodegradable material, is covered by the landfill directive, so there are targets for municipal waste as a whole, of which paper is a part.

The Household Waste Recycling Act 2003 states that every household (unless uneconomic, or alternatives are already in place) must have a kerbside collection of at least two materials by 2010. As paper is a relatively easy material to collect recycle it is likely that any new kerbside schemes introduced will include paper as one of the materials.

Please see our information sheet for further detail on waste based legislation



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