The Paper Waste Problem

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) as “everyday items we use and then throw away, such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, paint, and batteries”  [1].  Currently, about 29% of the municipal waste in the United States is made up of paper and paper products.  This is more than any other waste product in America today [2].  Because of this staggering statistic, it is clear that push towards greater paper recycling could help to significantly reduce the total MSW in America today.


[3] MSW of the US in 2012

The benefits of recycling paper are numerous.  First, recycling helps to conserve resources that are required to make paper.  Currently, the manufacture of paper is the largest industrial use of water on a per pound of product basis [4].  Paper manufacturing uses the third largest amount of fossil fuels worldwide [4].  It requires almost 324 liters of water to produce just one kilogram of paper [4].  These statistics and more show that paper production does, indeed, require a large amount of resources that could be better used elsewhere if recycling were more prevalent.

Efforts to increase recycling around the United States have been successful so far.  In a 2007 survey, it was found that about 87% of all people in the United had access to some form of community paper recycling service [5].  In addition, in 2010, almost 63% of paper used in the United States was recycled.  Compared to other countries, though, the US is not a leader of paper recycling.  The Netherlands recycles 77% of paper, Germany recycles 67%, Japan recycles 52%, and the US recycles 45%.  Clearly, more can be done to increase this effort across the country.

Possibly more important than a recycling effort is an overall effort to reduce paper use outright.  Whereas many have focused attention on a recycling effort, not much has been done to simply reduce paper use.  This may be the key to really seeing a reduction in energy use in the paper manufacture industry.  The idea of recycling has seemingly led people in a feeling of false security where one can use as much paper as desired as long as they recycle it afterwards.  A focus on resource conservation may be more crucial to this issue than simply resource recycling.









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3 responses to “The Paper Waste Problem

  1. stanleyliu09

    Great post; paper waste has been a huge problem that needs to be addressed more completely and directly. I was curious about the numbers and statistics that you posted; I noticed that your statistic in 2010 stating that 63% of all paper in America was recycled. Has that number increased? Especially with many major cities like Austin pushing for more paper recycling and the massive movement towards paperless technology. A lot of companies that bill you, like Austin’s Utility, offer and encourage paperless bills and wireless payments. The emergence of better internet technology, digital devices such as smart phones and tablets, and the transfer of traditional paper use to digital methods should also encourage the decrease of paper usage – and therefore a lower percentage of MSW being paper waste.

    You mention that something needs to be done to paper waste problem. What are some possible solutions to this problem besides the obvious answer of recycle more. I think many people would agree to recycle, in fact in an independent survey that I conducted only one person out of 60+ indicated that he or she didn’t try to recycle. Most people believe in and try to recycle, but not many recycle completely. Are there any companies, cities, or institution that have been able to recycle paper effectively and decrease paper usage in past couple of years? Were there any models that work effectively well in their respective communities that help decrease the amount of paper waste?

    I was also curious about the policy situation concerning paper usage. To my knowledge there are no federal policy that directly address recycling paper, in fact many local policies don’t address it either. In most places, like the University of Texas, we have huge bins of recycled paper, but there is not strict requirement to recycle. It is shocking to find large amounts of paper in waste baskets when there is a recycling bin only a couple feet away. Would it be acceptable, ethical, and prudent to ban the waste of paper and require that 100% of paper be recycled? It seems like the problem for many people isn’t the question of whether recycling is wrong or right, it is the question of how much effort they want to give in order to recycle. For many people it requires too much effort to recycle so they rather dump it in a waste bin. Would the pros of recycling paper be out weighted by the cons? The pros being be the conservation of resources, energy, and prevention of the destruction of forests – even specialty tree farms.

    Thanks for blogging about this. I agree with the necessity of paper conservation!

  2. Pingback: Paper Waste Research – From Paper to Screen

  3. Pingback: Waste Paper Generation as an Issue – The Paper Preserve

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