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The Environmental Impact of Paper Recycling
May 4, 2020 · Aaron Burr

The Environmental Impact of Paper Recycling

As we may know, recycling is important to save energy and resources when we can. Even with this being the case, reduce comes first in reduce, reuse, recycle for a reason, as we've learned in a previous post.

Recycling is far from perfect and many forms of it are not full circle. Meaning they will require things like energy and other resources in order to create a recycled material.

In regards to the issues with paper products, people often ask about recycling. Doesn’t recycling paper make it okay to use paper in the amount we do? Being that reduce and reuse both come before recycle, we can assume the answer to this is no. 

But if we were to post a relationship status with paper recycling, it would probably be: it’s complicated.

Let’s get into paper recycling specifically to see the impacts of paper recycling, the problems with it, and of course the good as well. 

The good

Paper is better to recycle

Paper is among the materials like metal, cardboard, and some plastics, that are better to recycle.

Paper recycling can be good because it:

  • Is lightweight for transportation
  • Can be recycled multiple times, depending on the quality
  • Saves energy
  • Requires fewer chemicals than new paper
  • Diverts paper from landfills
  • Reduces some greenhouse gas emissions

The bad

Bad sides of paper recycling


Paper recycling costs a good chunk more as compared to sending it to a landfill. We could argue this is simply the ethical cost of doing business, but maybe our money could otherwise be spent on true zero waste initiatives. Or maybe even subsidizing other paper materials like hemp.   

Water use

Because the used paper products need to have ink removed and reproduced into a raw material, water will be required. And this does not account for the water used in the energy demand of paper recycling.

Limited life

Depending on the quality of the paper, it can only be recycled from four to at most seven times. Paper can only be made into the same quality required for a category, or lower. So, printer paper could be made into printer paper or into magazine paper and lower. It can not be made into something of higher quality like card stock. Paper waste

Our soiled paper waste (like tissues) cannot be recycled There are strict requirements with what paper can and cannot be recycled. A lot of paper and cardboard items end up being soiled after we use them. This can be from things like food or...other things. This is a great opportunity to replace single use items like tissues or paper plates with reusable versions. Especially since they can’t be recycled anyways. If we find ourselves having to use paper that can’t be recycled, a great last resort can be composting it

The false sense of good-doing

When we recycle, a lot of us feel good about doing it. And in many cases we of course should. But most of the time, the amount of good that paper recycling contributes does not match the possible increase of resource use associated with a more guilt free experience. This relates to an idea we touched on in regards to the lifestyle impacts of a zero waste life. Our brains don’t recognize much of a difference between tossing something into the trash vs a recycling bin. This can lead to a more wasteful lifestyle outside of trash as compared to a more zero waste option. 

The verdict

At the end of the day we should always be doing what we can to cause the least possible harm to others and the environment. We must also recognize just how grey or not black and white a thing like environmental footprint can be. Some things we may find, like paper recycling, make us feel like we are doing a lot of good which makes us maybe use more unnecessary resources. the use of single use paper products all together, helps us reduce how many trees are lost, and how much water, energy, and resources are wasted. Paper recycling is not perfect, and arguably it never will be. But it will always remain as a good last resort option to reduce our waste of the (hopefully) small amount of paper we throw away.