Paper recycling has become part of our daily routine. It’s strange to think that it wasn’t until 2010 that it became a legal requirement for local authorities to collect at least two types of recyclable material from our kerbs.
In the decade since, we’ve all become more eco-aware, but many of us still have gaps in our knowledge. Do we really know how paper recycling works? And exactly what kinds of paper products we can put in our recycling bins?
In our ultimate guide to paper recycling, we set out to fill the knowledge gaps and bring a wider understanding of how, what and why we recycle.
There are several stages involved in taking wastepaper and transforming it into a product that can be used again. Here’s a run-through of the most commonly followed processes:
For domestic paper recycling waste, collection is carried out by local councils in the UK, while business may rely on private firms. The material is then taken to a recycling plant.
On arrival at the recycling plant, the material is sorted into grades. In Europe, the Standard Grades of recovered paper and board are divided into five groups as defined by the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI):
Non-paper components and paper and board that are deemed detrimental to production are removed at this stage. The higher the quality of recovered material, the higher grade of paper that can be produced from that group.
The wastepaper is placed in a large vat where water and chemical reagents are added to start to soften and break down the material. The mixture is then typical mixed and blended while heat is applied to further help the process. When the material has disintegrated into a runny mix of cellulose fibres and water, the result is a substance called pulp, or slurry.
The slurry is then strained to sift out any non-paper materials such as staples, sticky tape and other foreign bodies.
In an alternative process, the slurry is spun in conical vats where centrifugal forces push heavy contaminants such as staples and pins to the edge where they can be removed.
According to one authority1, ink accounts for 2% of the entire weight of wastepaper. That’s a substantial constituent that needs to be removed from the secondary fibre before it is ready to move on to the next stage.
Because the inks and adhesives that we wish to remove are water-repelling, and the slurry is now mainly water, it’s actually easier than you might think to separate them. They just need a helping hand to untangle themselves from one and other. This is achieved through a process called flotation de-inking that involves adding a chemical surfactant and passing bubbles through the slurry.
As the bubbles naturally travel up through the slurry, they carry the hydrophobic ink particles along with them. The chemical surfactant helps the process by reducing the surface tension in the slurry, allowing the unwanted particles to separate from the liquid. The ink and adhesive then gather as a foam on the surface that can be skimmed off and discarded.
The slurry usually goes through a final rinsing process to remove further contaminants. If the slurry is destined to become a white paper stock, then it will need to undergo a bleaching using a series of chemicals. Even if the end product is a coloured paper, the slurry will need to be bleached to create a colourless base material.
The most common sequence of bleaching agents in modern slurry bleaching is known as CEDED, which stands for chlorine (C), alkali extraction (E), chlorine dioxide (D), alkali extraction again (E), and chlorine dioxide again (D).
The cleaned slurry is sprayed onto a metal mesh which allows it to gather in a single layer while much of the moisture drains away. The fibres start to bond as the layer dries and the slurry begins to cohere into a single sheet.
The waterlogged layer is now ready to pass through a series of rollers. The rollers compress the sheet, squeezing out moisture and consolidating fibres. Heated rollers then continue the drying and compressing process and until the sheet has become a roll of paper.
In our home lives, we can all do our bit for the cause. Kerbside paper collection exists throughout the UK to take domestic paper waste away for recycling. With a little bit of knowledge and commitment, we can optimise how much of our waste gets recycled and avoid contaminating the material we pass on.
The various local authorities in the UK use different providers and have different systems in place so it’s always worth visiting their website to see what the rules are for paper recycling in your area. If you’re unsure which authority deals with your waste and what their guidelines are, you can enter your postcode at the Recycling Collections page on the UK Government website to find out.
Once you’ve found the recycling guidelines you need, it’s a good idea to print them out or write them down. Display them in the kitchen as a reminder to the household about what items to put where. Unsuitable items can taint an entire batch, so it’s important that we all learn to take responsibility for putting waste items in the appropriate bin.
For businesses, find an appropriate local waste contractor that can carry out commercial recycling on your behalf. Costs will vary depending on the frequency and volume of collections and the types of waste you produce. Be sure to gather at least three quotes to ensures you get a competitive deal.
Although paper recycling has been around for a long time, there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge when it comes to what’s recyclable and what’s not. Here, we attempt to go shine a light in those grey areas and dispel a few of the mysteries surrounding what types of paper can or can’t be recycled.
YES. When your printed paper is recycled, the de-inking process can remove the ink from the pulp. Following the bleaching process, it can even become white paper again.
MAYBE. Some wrapping papers are recyclable and some aren’t. Some gift wrap is made from already recycled material which is even better, but there are products that can’t be recycled at all. If you’re the one buying the wrapping paper, it’s best to check before purchasing, but the nature of the product means the person that purchases the paper may not be the person that has to dispose of it. On Christmas morning when you have a pile of different papers ready to sort, where do you start?
Here’s a quick checklist to look out for when deciding if you can recycle wrapping paper:
MAYBE. Like wrapping paper, some greetings cards are made from recycled material, some can be recycled abd some can’t. Again, you won’t be able to recycle any card with glitter, metallic embellishments or that incorporates non-paper elements in its design.
MAYBE. With a few exceptions, coloured paper is usually recyclable. Any paper that is light enough to write on or is white on the inside when ripped can generally be recycled. However, very strongly coloured papers where the colour saturates the entire material may not be recyclable.
YES. Don’t be put off by their often shiny appearance. Catalogues and brochures can almost always be recycled. Even heavily printed material can be put to use once recycled.
YES. Regardless of how glossy they appear or how they are bound together, magazines can generally be recycled using modern processes.
YES. You can recycle brochures, magazines and office waste with staples without even removing them first. That’s because the recycling process is equipped to sift out staples once the paper has been reduced to slurry.
YES. You buy a new toy, a piece of tech or simply some lasagne sheets. The box is made from card, but it has a plastic viewing window. In this situation, you must remove the plastic part and dispose of it elsewhere, but yes – you can recycle the card part as normal.
YES. Most recycling plants can cope with sifting and removing the window from envelopes as part of there standard sifting process. So, you can put window envelopes straight into the recycling without worrying about removing the clear film.
MAYBE. The material that tills, automatic checkouts, card readers and ATMs print onto is known as thermal paper. If the thermal paper is uncoated, then it can be recycled. But sometimes it’s coated in a chemical called BPA to make it more heat resistant and less prone to fading.
Thankfully BPA usage is becoming tightly controlled because of environmental concerns and links to health risks. An EU-wide ban on the use of BPA in thermal paper came into force in 2020, so we can soon be assured that all receipts will be recyclable.
NO. Fax paper is usually thermal paper containing BPA. That’s because this outmoded technology uses heat to activate a dye precursor that forms the imprint on the paper. As discussed, BPA is being phased out in most countries owing to health concerns so it may be that BPA, and fax machines themselves, soon become a thing of the past. Until then, fax paper should not be included in your paper recycling.
NO. A sheet of paper that’s laminated in plastic cannot be separated and recycled using current methods.
MAYBE. You would have thought that shredded paper is the perfect recyclable material — surely we’ve already given it a head start by beginning to break it down?
The problem arises because the recycling process depends on conserving paper fibres in long strands. This is what gives the end-product its strength. Shredding breaks too many of those fibres resulting in a weaker recycled paper. The fragmented nature of shredded paper also makes it harder for companies to collect and process.
While you shouldn’t lump shredded paper in with your regular paper recycling, there are companies that will accept and recycle it. If you’re a business that uses a commercial provider, speak to them about the options for shredded paper, and to see if they prefer it to be bagged separately in clear bags, paper bags or boxes.
NO. Even though water forms a crucial role in the recycling process, getting your paper recycling wet is bad news. The reason is that, like shredding, moisture damages the fibres in the paper. These fibres are essential for the recycled paper to bind together into a new sheet. Even if paper has become wet and then dried out, the fibres will have been weakened, so take care to keep your paper and cardboard dry.
NO. The good news is that most tissue paper is made from recycled material. It may even have been recycled more than half-a-dozen times. By the time it becomes tissue, however, the fibres are too shredded to form a coherent recycled product. So that’s it, tissue is the end of the line for paper recycling.
Also, it should go without saying that soiled materials of any kind cannot be recycled – that stuff needs to be binned or flushed!
NO. For paper towels, it’s the same story as tissue. The fibres are too fragmented to be recycled into new material, and soiled paper towels would have to go to landfill anyway.
YES. Your finished tubes can be recycled just like any other cardboard. Any adhesive residue on the card will be removed during the cleaning process once the card has become slurry.
NO. Any material that’s contaminated with food can’t be recycled, but even unused greaseproof paper can’t be recycled. That’s because it has a silicone coating to prevent food from sticking to the surface.
NO. Paper that has a wax coating can no longer be recycled, as the paper fibres can’t be separated from the wax. Any process designed to render the paper waterproof will cause problems for recycling, because the process depends on water to break the paper down.
Some beeswax coated papers are compostable and can go into food waste containers, but recycling back into paper is not an option.
MAYBE. In response to recent public outcries about single-use plastics, many bars and restaurant chains have made the switch to paper straws. When the media turned its focus on the fact that many paper straws couldn’t be recycled, this prompted a second wave of objections.
Perhaps most publicly, McDonalds came under the spotlight when it emerged that their straws had to be disposed of as general waste. In response, the company has changed the straws they use and is working with recycling companies to ensure they can be recycled.
While beeswax coated straws are biodegradable and compostable, they cannot be recycled. However, recyclable wax-free alternatives are beginning to enter the market. Swiss company SIG has even introduced a juice box where the carton, straw and even the blister that holds the straw, are all recyclable. Plus, the paper straw is even sturdy enough to pierce the carton!
NO. Most of us have been aware of the environmental impact of disposable coffee cups ever since food broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall began campaigning on the issue in 2015.
The plastic liner used to seal conventional takeaway cups means that they can’t be disposed of in household paper recycling. While some outlets have begun to accept returned cups which they recycle through their own specialist providers, uptake has been minimal.
Compostable cups are an alternative that many coffee shops have adopted. While they’re not recycled, they do biodegrade. The problem here is that they need to be taken home and put into food waste containers. Many are discarded in public waste bins, or mistakenly put into general waste or other incorrect recycling channels.
Carrying your own reusable coffee cup is most likely the ideal solution for the eco-friendly coffee lover. Some coffee shops use a loyalty card to incentivise you to bring your own cup, so you can do your bit and enjoy a free coffee too!
NO. Once that pizza grease has soaked into the box, there’s no way back! Oil and moisture damage the fibres in the cardboard and can’t be easily removed, so these boxes can’t be recycled. What’s worse is that a soiled item like a pizza box can contaminate the whole batch of recycling material, causing it to end up in landfill.
NO. Children can produce a heap of artwork, and while we may wish to keep a selection of masterpieces forever, there will always be a body of lesser works that may need to “disappear” at some point.
Sadly, once the crayon or brush has marked the page, it can no longer be recycled. Wax from crayons and oil from certain paints contaminate the paper. Even water-based paints will dampen and compromise the fibres making the paper unsuitable for recycling.
YES. Paper bags are fine to recycle, as long as any non-paper elements such as string handles are removed.
Again, the paper must be dry and free from contamination, so if your takeaway jalfrezi has left a greasy spot on the bottom of the bag, it will have to go in the general waste.
Every year, the UK gets through 12.5million tonnes of paper2. It’s encouraging to note that, according to paper.org.uk, in 2019, we collected 3.1 million tonnes of paper and cardboard as a nation, and over 70% of the material used to create new paper came from recycled sources3.
Andrew Large, Direct General of The Confederation of Paper Industries, writing to the Guardian in 2019, states that the UK recycles over 80% of the cardboard we use, and the boxes used by most online retailers are created from 100% recycled material4.
So paper recycling is being undertaken on a massive scale and recycled fibre is by far the most widely used resource in the manufacture of new paper products. But sort of environmental benefits does paper recycling bring?
The most evident motivation to recycle paper is to save trees and slow deforestation. Trees are vital for the health of the planet and it takes an average of 24 of them to create just one tonne of paper2. It’s clear that recycling our paper protects woodlands, but there are other environmental advantages to be gained.
Producing paper from recycled material is far less polluting than creating it from raw materials. For example, manufacturing paper from recycled material creates 73% less air pollution than producing paper made from virgin wood pulp2.
According to a US university, for every tonne of recycled paper we produce, we save5:
So, our efforts to recycle are having real-world benefits, not just for trees but for the environment as a whole.
At Headline, our policy towards paper recycling can be distilled into three pledges:
All of our pulp business cards and flyers are 100% recycled, 380mic and printed in a TCF (totally chlorine-free) process, bleached without elementary chlorine, making them the most eco-friendly print we offer.
With a little effort and consideration, we in the commercial print industry can help protect the planet for future generations and ensure that our profession is “green” – no matter what colours we’re printing with!
1 R. McKinney: Technology of Paper Recycling, 1995, p. 351.
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