Can I Recycle Paper?

If you’re like most people, you have paper all over your home. Newspapers, old bills, gas receipts—you name it, paper is incredibly common in our homes. We here at Our Happy Planet use our fair share of paper products as well, but the important thing is reducing use of paper and knowing the facts when it comes to properly recycling paper.

Fortunately, many paper products can be recycled, though not all. Let’s look further at which papers can and cannot be recycled, as well as how to recycle paper, where to recycle paper, and even how to potentially make some money by recycling paper.

First, your paper recycling needs to be clean. Soiled paper cannot be recycled. Similarly, any plastic needs to be removed, such as the plastic wrapping that comes with newspapers or magazines. (That plastic, however, can still be recycled with plastic bags at large supermarkets, for instance.)

Let’s consider the types of paper that can be recycled: Newspapers and supplementary papers; magazines, brochures, catalogs; white paper, such as computer paper and letters; shredded paper, such as you might have in your home office; telephone directories, such as the yellow pages; junk mail, flyers, and other mass mailings; envelopes (including those with a window).

That still leaves plenty of types of paper that cannot be recycled, of course. As we mentioned previously, paper recycling cannot be dirty, meaning it cannot be stained with food, grease, paint, or dirt. (This includes things like kids’ paintings, baking paper, parchment paper, etc.) Similarly, the following items cannot be included in your paper recycling: hygiene and/or sanitary products (napkins, wipes, sanitary towels, feminine products); used paper towels, tissues, cotton, wool, or make-up removal pads; sticky papers, such as sticky labels, paper tape, or post-it notes; non-paper gift wrap (such as foil-based gift wrapping, for instance); food wrappers; wallpaper and other decorative paper; brown paper (such as packing paper).

Brown paper can still be recycled, but needs to be recycled with cardboard and paperboard. The rest of those no-no items, however, are usually trash items.


How to Recycle Paper

But let’s say you have some of those paper recycling items that can and should be recycled. If so, how do you go about recycling that paper recycling?

First, do your research. While the guidelines we shared earlier are generally representative of what most recycling programs will accept (or not accept), not all paper recycling programs are created equal.

Some will take everything we listed; other programs might not take shredded paper, for instance. So do your research.

Second, consider these paper recycling tips—the best 10 ways to recycle paper, both at home and in the office.

Top 10 Paper Recycling Tips

  1. Use recycled paper and limit your paper usage. You can do that by printing on both sides of the paper and printing on recycled paper. Recycling paper adds up quickly: 1 ton of paper recycling saves more than three cubic yards of landfill space, 17 trees, and more than 7,000 gallons of water. 
  2. Recycle your old technology as it becomes outdated. Rather than throwing it away, recycle it, just like you would paper. While electronic waste, or e-waste, is a little more difficult to recycle than paper, we have lots of great information to help you get started.
  3. Make recycling easy. If you have a recycling bin near your desk or otherwise easily accessible, you’re far more likely to really get good at recycling paper. Just remember to keep your paper clean, which may mean keeping your paper recycling separate from other recycling. In general, though, keeping easily accessible recycling bins makes you far more likely to recycle, and recycling paper is a very worthwhile habit.
  4. Buy recycled toners and remanufactured ink. Not only will that make you feel better about the (double-sided!) printing you do have to do, but it helps cut down on cartridges that need to be manufactured—and each cartridge recycled keeps 2 ½ pounds of metal and plastic out of the trash!
  5. Contribute further by recycling your empty ink and toner cartridges. Given that roughly eight cartridges are thrown away every second in the United States (three-quarters of a million each day!), that adds up quickly!
  6. Get a reusable coffee mug to replace your paper or Styrofoam cups. Reusable mugs are relatively cheap, and cut down significant waste every single time you use them instead of a disposable option.
  7. Consider ways to cut down on your paper usage. Oftentimes you can print fewer copies (such as asking individuals to share, for instance) or may not need to print at all.
  8. Consider purchasing other recycled options, beyond just recycled paper and recycled toners, for instance. Many office supplies can be found in recyclable and recycled options.
  9. Recycle old newspapers laying around the office. When you’re done reading, either leave it for someone else to read or recycle it. Just generally getting in the habit of recycling paper you see laying around the office is a pretty good habit to pick up, really.
  10. Similarly, consider getting a digital subscription of your paper, rather than a print copy.


Paper Recycling

What Is the Process to Recycle Paper?

The process of recycling paper is much more complicated than most people realize. In fact, it’s a multi-step process, which is part of why making sure you have only clean paper and the right kind of paper recycling in your bin is so important.

Consider these 10 steps of recycling paper:

  1. Start by ensuring that you only have the proper paper recycling materials in your recycling bin.
  2. This means the following kinds of paper are okay for recycling paper: Newspapers and supplementary papers; magazines, brochures, catalogs; white paper, such as computer paper and letters; shredded paper, such as you might have in your home office; telephone directories, such as the yellow pages; junk mail, flyers, and other mass mailings; envelopes (including those with a window).
  3. This also means that the following are not okay for recycling paper: Stained paper (including food, grease, paint, or dirt stains); hygiene and/or sanitary products (napkins, wipes, sanitary towels, feminine products); used paper towels, tissues, cotton, wool, or make-up removal pads; sticky papers, such as sticky labels, paper tape, or post-it notes; non-paper gift wrap (such as foil-based gift wrapping, for instance); food wrappers; wallpaper and other decorative paper; brown paper (such as packing paper). 
  4. Double-check that you’re aware of any further restrictions your local recycling program may have in place; some programs, for instance, do not like shredded paper in their paper recycling. 
  5. Place your paper recycling in the correct pick-up location if you have curbside recycling service, or if you do not, take it an appropriate paper recycling drop-off location.
  6. After your paper recycling is collected, it is mixed with other paper from other recycling bin. The mixed paper recycling is then taken to a processing facility; at the facility, paper recycling is separated into different types and grades.
  7. Once separated, each batch is washed with soapy water. This helps remove plastic film, glue adhesives, inks, and even staples. Once washed, the paper is mixed with water to create a slurry.
  8. By adding materials to the slurry, different paper products can be made, including cardboard, newsprint paper, or even office paper.
  9. Once the slurry is the appropriate consistency and all of the additives have been added, it is spread into large thin sheets using large rollers.
  10. After the paper is dried in the thin sheets, it is rolled up and sent to various shops to be cut as needed.


What Is the Best Way to Recycle Paper?

But, you might be saying, is that the only way to recycle paper? What’s the best way to recycle paper?

The truth is that one of the best ways to recycle paper is two-fold: Use less paper, and recycle the paper you do use. Using both strategies will help you reduce your footprint and get into a great recycling paper habit.

We already talked about how you can recycle the paper you do use, but what are good strategies for using less paper? Consider these 5 tips for using less paper.

5 Tips How To Save Paper

  1. Ask people to share copies of printed materials. This is especially useful for group meetings, for instance, where people are seated near enough to share easily.
  2. Print double-sided whenever possible. Rarely will you print something that has to be one-sided only, so cut down on your printing by printing double-sided.
  3. Replace paper copies with digital files wherever possible. For instance, consider an online subscription to your local paper rather than a paper copy. 
  4. Avoid using paper products whenever possible. Instead of paper bags, use reusable shopping bags. Instead of paper cups, use a reusable coffee mug. Instead of paper plates and napkins at gatherings, ask participants to bring their own dishes and cloth napkins. If you look for ways to avoid using paper products, you may be surprised at just how much you can change your day-to-day life.
  5. And the same goes for your mail. Junk mail is one of the largest uses of paper, and regularly making sure you are unsubscribed from various mailing lists—or on a digital list rather than a mailing list—is one of the easiest ways you can cut down on significant paper use. While it may take some time initially to get your junk mail reduced, it’s time well spent.

Can You Put Shredded Paper in the Recycling Bin?

The short answer: It depends. In many places, the answer is yes, but there are some recycling programs that don’t allow shredded paper in their recycling collection. In large part, this is because shredded paper can be even more of a littering risk than other forms of paper recycling, as it can easily blow away and turn into debris—which is not what you want from your recycling.

In many places, you’ll need to do your due diligence: Does your local recycling program accept shredded paper. Keep in mind, though, that even in places where shredded paper is accepted as paper recycling, it should be dumped directly into your recycling bin. Don’t make the mistake of putting plastic bags full of shredded paper into your recycling bin.

In places where shredded paper cannot be accepted as paper recycling, however, consider another option: Compositing. One tip if you do choose to go the composting route with your shredded paper is to make sure to sandwich it between other layers of composting material so that it doesn’t blow away, or to consider dampening your shredded paper compost. Otherwise, though, shredded paper can make a great composting agent.


Are Paper Bags Recyclable?

When it comes to paper bags, almost all of them are recyclable in most recycling programs. Brown paper grocery bags, for instance, are recyclable, as are paper lunch bags. The paper bags that might not be recyclable are those that include a mix of paper and plastic. While that mix means the bags are more durable, the plastic mixed in means that they can’t always be recycled with the rest of your paper recycling.

Similarly, you cannot recycle your paper bags if they are soiled by grease, dirt, or food stains. Because paper is recycled by using water to turn it into a slurry, oils and other contaminants can contaminate and ruin an entire batch. So if you have soiled bags, either toss the bag or remove the soiled portions before recycling the unsoiled portions.

When it comes to glues and handles, you’re usually okay, however. Most handles are also made of paper; if the handles on your bag are made of something else, remove them before recycling the bag so as not to contaminate the batch. Most glues and adhesives used in paper bags are water-soluble, meaning they’ll break down in the recycling process.

What Are the Disadvantages of Using Paper Bags?

If you have to use disposable bags, most people would tell you paper bags are better than plastic. And in many ways, that’s accurate; paper bags break down far more quickly than plastic, and can be more readily recycled, provided you don’t soil the bags. Additionally, nearly 70 percent of all paper bags made today are made from recycled paper themselves, allowing you to feel good about your bag choice.

There are some disadvantages to using paper bags, however. Paper bags are quite vulnerable to water damage and generally are not as sturdy as plastic bags. (Instead of using either, though, consider reusable bags—which are both much sturdier and are built to withstand water. Even better, most of them can be washed when they get dirty!)

Similarly, it can be difficult to carry more than a few paper bags at a time. Finally, though, when it comes to manufacturing paper bags, the process can be quite energy-intensive. Using recycled paper helps, but the environmental cost of making paper bags can be quite high.


Paper Recycling at Home

If you want, of course, you can also recycle your paper at home. While the 10 steps of recycling paper we shared above may have seemed complicated, the truth is it’s actually pretty straight-forward—and something you can do easily at home.

Here are the things you’ll need:

  • Waste paper (just be sure to avoid glossy paper, like magazine paper)
  • Water
  • Blender or food processor
  • Mesh or screen
  • An old picture frame
  • 9” x 13” pan or a rectangular bin for water
  • Decorations (dried flowers, confetti, seeds; optional, but makes your paper pretty)

Start by tearing your paper into small strips and placing those strips in the blender or food processor with warm water; blend the mixture until you have a fairly smooth pulp. (Because you want a pulp, rather than a soup, take care not to add too much warm water. After all, you can always add more.)

Next, use your frame and mesh to make a mold; we’re partial to using staples to attach the mesh to the frame, but you can use any method for attaching the mesh screen that works for you.

Third, pour the pulp into your pan or bin before sinking your mold into the pulpy water mixture. Slowly pull the mold back up, and you should have pulp covering the screen. Add decorations if you want, or don’t. Add more pulp by hand if needed to better cover the screen and ensure the decorations (if you’re using them) adhere to the paper.

Fourth, use a cloth or sponge to press out excess water so that your paper can better dry. There are a few ways to let the paper dry. You can simply leave it on the screen (though you run the risk of it sticking to the mold) or you can flip the mold over and let the paper dry on another surface. Alternatively, you can press a cloth to the mold so that the paper adheres to the cloth and dries on the cloth. Just be sure to allow plenty of time to dry; it may take a day or several for your paper to fully dry.

Paper Recycling Center Near Me

If you don’t already know what your paper recycling options might be, don’t despair: There are lots of options out there. For those of you who don’t have curbside paper recycling, there are still likely places you can take your paper recycling.

We recommend using Recycle Now’s search function to see what’s in your area.

Can I Get Money for Recycling Paper?

When you think of making money recycling, you probably don’t think of recycling paper. And truthfully, paper recycling is hardly the most lucrative when it comes to getting paid to recycle; scrap metal and aluminum are both far easier ways to make money while recycling. In fact, the average rate for a ton of paper recycling is probably only $50-75—not very much for a few thousand pounds of paper.

But that doesn’t mean it might not still be worth looking into in your area, because if you do have a lot of paper recycling to deal with, even small amounts can add up. So if paper recycling for profit is something that interests you, here’s how to start.

Start by finding recycling centers that will pay. While there are likely lots of recycling centers around you that will accept paper recycling, finding the ones that will pay you for recycling paper may take a little more legwork. Spend time on each facilities website. Make phone calls.

If you find recycling centers that will pay for paper recycling, both note the rate they offer and get a promise on how long that rate is good. Finding a good rate only to see that rate has changed when you go to drop off your paper recycling is a bummer you don’t want to deal with. Similarly, make sure you know exactly what kinds of paper recycling they will pay for; while some recycling centers will accept nearly any paper recycling and pay a flat rate, there are also plenty of recycling centers that are much more selective in which kinds of paper recycling they are willing to pay you to drop off. So do your research.

Once you have the relevant details, starting collecting those paper products for which you can get cash. Odds are good you can get those paper products from others around you, too, as they’ll simply be glad to have your help taking their extra paper off their hands.

Make sure to sort your paper products correctly, as many places that pay for paper recycling will require that paper be sorted correctly. (Again, do your research and know exactly what the facility expects before you take your paper recycling!)

Finally, get paid. Some places will pay on the spot; others will give you a receipt and mail a check later. Make sure you know what the process is in advance so you aren’t surprised.


What Happens to the Paper We Recycle?

Finally, you may be wondering what happens to all that paper we recycle. The truth is, most of it ends up back in paper products, whether newspaper stock, office paper, or cardboard, for instance. It all comes down to what materials are added to each batch of slurry.

Adding more fibrous materials, for instance, might help make the slurry into corrugated cardboard or thicker cardstock. Less might be more conducive to making thinner paper stock, such as that used for newspapers. A great deal of recycled paper might even end up as paper bags—nearly 70% of which are made from recycled paper.

Regardless of what your paper recycling becomes, however, you can rest easy knowing that you’ve made a difference. Every recycled paper product saves trees, saves landfill space, and saves energy. And that’s something of which you can be incredibly proud!