Lifecycle of Paper

paper recycleAs much as technology surrounds us, we are far from being a paperless society — from sales receipts to instruction manuals to children’s homework, paper is an intrinsic part of our society.

Fortunately, paper is also fairly easy to recycle, and comes from a renewable (albeit slowly renewable) resource. But do you really know where your paper comes from, and where it goes after you put it in the recycle bin? Here’s a look at the life of a typical sheet of paper, from the woods to your desk to your recycling bin, and back to a paper product again:

1. Paper begins its life as wood, either from a tree that is newly felled, or from wood scraps from lumber processing (this is referred to as pre-consumer waste). Paper that is made from all newly-felled wood, rather than from any recycled materials, is called “virgin fiber paper”.

2. The wood is processed into chips, and then further processed into pulp, a watery mush. In many cases the pulp is then bleached using chlorine, so that the final paper product is a brighter color, like the bright white paper available for printing at home.

3. After the pulp is made, it is sprayed onto screens, which allows the water to drain off and the fibrous strands to bond to each other. The mat that forms is then rolled; first between felt cylinders to remove more water, and then through rollers that bond the fibers to each other and create the uniform thinness of a sheet of paper.

4. Once the tree has been turned into paper, it is rolled onto huge reels (sometimes weighing up to 3 tons!) and then transferred to a converter, which trims paper to different sizes — like your standard eight-and-a-half-by-eleven printer paper — before distributing it to printers and stores.

But wait! Paper’s life isn’t even close to over yet. At this point in the cycle, paper’s future lies in consumers’ hands:

5. After the paper is purchased and used, most of it ends up in the recycling bin — Americans are pretty responsible when it comes to recycling paper. Of all the paper consumed in the U.S. in 2012, 65.1 percent was recovered for recycling — that’s about 327 pounds of paper recovered for each person in the U.S. — while only 8 percent of all plastic consumed was recovered for recycling. There was 400,865 total tons of paper recycled in Kansas in 2011. What’s more, the amount of paper being recycled is on the rise.

6. As the recycled paper is collected, it is taken to a recycling facility where it is separated by type — newspaper, cardboard, office, et cetera — so that paper mills can then use the specific types of paper to make different products. The different types of paper collected for recycling are not only used to make new paper, but also to make masking tape, bandages, car insulation, hospital gowns, globes and more.

7. Once separated, the paper is made into pulp again, reverting the paper to its original cellulose fibers. The paper pulp is cleaned of contaminants like glue or staples by being pushed through screens and spun in centrifugal spinners. To remove the ink from paper during the recycling process, the pulp is put through washing and flotation processes with a certain type of soap.

8. The recycled-paper pulp might then be mixed with some virgin fiber, or sawdust from lumber mills, which helps to make recycled papers stronger and smoother. Now the newly-recycled paper re-enters the same cycle it went through back when it was virgin-fiber paper.
Next time you open your newspaper, shove a sales receipt into your wallet, or jot a note to your coworker, stop to think about the journey that piece of paper has already been on — and what is in store for it when as you recycle paper.

Dissemination of Kansas Green Guide by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, a governmental agency, is solely for the non-commercial purpose of informing and educating the public. References to specific companies do not constitute a KDHE endorsement.