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How Does Paper Get Recycled?

Jul 24th, 2023

Paper is everywhere. Turn to your left, there’s paper. To the right — paper. Paper is the bedrock of all our shopping lists, wall décor, retail tags and is a huge part of our daily lives.

Recycling all that paper is just as important, as it allows us to be more mindful about the resources we use. Though it can be hard to imagine your takeout coffee cup ever having another life as a phone book, a mailer or even a passionate love letter, recycled paper accounts for a large portion of paper products we use today. 

Steps in the paper recycling process


The first step in the recycling process is collection. Paper can be collected from homes, businesses and other sources through a variety of methods that include curbside collection, drop-off centers or the lesser-known mail-back programs. 

The types of paper that are acceptable for collection will depend on who is in charge of running your city or neighborhood’s recycling program — such as a government agency, a nonprofit organization or a private company. It’s always good to check!

How to make this process easier: make sure that you are aware of what items can and can’t be recycled so that the entire bin doesn’t get contaminated!

Transportation and sorting

Once the paper has been collected, regardless of the method, it’s transported to a materials recovery facility (M.R.F.) where your recycling gets sorted. 

The type of sorting that happens first depends on what’s in your recycling bin. 

  • Single stream collection: this type of collection service allows consumers to place all types of recycling material into one bin, such as glass, paper, metals, plastic and the like. 
  • Sorted-stream collection: this type of collection relies on consumers to sort their recyclables first and separate them into the appropriate collection bins.

If your recycling center uses a single-stream collection service, then the sorting process will first separate any paper products from the total stream. This can be done by passing the contents under magnets to remove metals, using infrared sensors to detect certain materials, using x-rays to determine item compositions, passing material through filters to separate items by size and, of course, sorting the items by hand. 

If your paper arrives at the M.R.F. pre-sorted from the rest, then great! All the recycling center needs to do now is sort the paper by grade.

Grades of paper

Paper is sorted into categories based on the length of the fibers in the paper. Since paper is made from natural fibers (hello, trees!) there’s only so many times one can reuse the fibers until they are too weak to hold together any longer. The longer the fiber, the stronger the paper — the more often the paper is recycled, the shorter the fibers get.

Though paper can be sorted into thousands of grades based on color, material, usage, surface treatment, finish, weight and acidity (just to name a few), the United States Environmental Protection Agency categorizes accepted paper materials into five main grades.

  • Old corrugated containers: as in, corrugated cardboards that are used in cereal boxes, shoeboxed, packaging boxes, etc...
  • Old newspapers: a pretty self-explanatory description.
  • Mixed paper: this mix of old mail, phone books, magazines and other miscellaneous items typically goes on to become paper material for building materials, egg cartons, insulation and other fiber-y doo-dads.
  • Pulp substitutes: scraps of high-grade paper from a variety of sources, such as manufacturing plants or print shops.
  • High grade paper (deinked): this encompasses printer paper, letterheads, copier paper and the like.

Recycling centers can sort paper into these different grades by using manual sorting, air classification using the item’s weight and density to separate them from the rest and optical sorting using cameras and machines.

This is where the M.R.F. ends its work, as once the paper is sorted and packed into bales, the recyclable materials are sent to paper mills that take over the actual recycling process. 

Shredding and pulping

Bales of sorted, graded paper arrive at paper mills ready to be shredded and broken down. 

Here, massive industrial shredders called pulpers break down the paper into small pieces that are easier to work with. The shredded paper is mixed with water and a cocktail of chemicals that help break down the fillers and coating that hold the natural fibers together, leaving behind a pulp of raw fibers that can be pressed into new paper. 


Depending on what the paper was used for to start with, there may still be printer’s ink remaining within the pulpy mixture. Luckily, though, there are several ways to deink paper pulp! 

Pulp can be deinked through flotation deinking (separating materials based on density), bleach deinking (chemically cleaning the pulp), enzymatic deinking (an environmentally-friendly chemical process) and washing (passing the pulp through a series of filters).


After being deinked and washed, the pulp is finally ready to be dried. 

Machines spray the wet pulp onto large screens that pass under rollers and through drying rooms, all of which press out the water or let it evaporate from the pulpy mush. What’s left is a long sheet of freshly-made paper free from inks, dyes and coatings. 

By this point, all that’s left of your old magazines, favorite shoeboxes, neighborhood phone books and annoying spam mailers is a blend of natural fibers pressed into large rolls of paper product. The fibers aren’t as long as they were when they were first processed into brand-new paper, but they’re still long enough to create the structure for a recycled paper product!


From here, those rolls or sheets of freshly-recycled paper fibers can go anywhere and be remanufactured into anything! They could go to another paper mill and be made into letterheads, paper towels, insulation, boxes, egg cartons, cat litter, newspapers and a million other items.

In fact, most paper fibers can live up to seven “lives” before their fibers become too short to reuse! 

It’s a long journey, but one that saves a huge amount of natural resources; every ton of recycled paper saves up to 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, 7,000 gallons of water, 4,000 kilowatts of energy and three cubic yards of landfill space! This is why recycling is so important and why here at AMLI, we make it a priority in our journey to live more sustainability!

Good luck!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/stux

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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