Paper recycling

Paper is the most recycled material in the world. We recycle more paper than plastic, glass and aluminum combined. In some countries, where recycling is still not very wide-spread, people still recycle paper. Recycling 1 kilogram of white (printing or copier) paper saves slightly more than 2 kilograms of wood. At the same time recycling 1 kg of gray paper (i.e. paper used for printing newspapers) saves about 1 kg of wood. On many sources you can find a relation of kilograms of recycled paper with the amount of saved trees. This comparison is, however, rather meaningful. Tree sizes vary significantly, therefore, such a comparison can result in very different outcomes. It has, however, been estimated that recycling half of the paper currently used by humanity, would save around 81,000 km² of forestland [1].

Paper recycling

What can recycled paper turn into?

Have you ever heard the following phrase: “Paper has seven generations”? This phrase refers to the amount of times it can be recycled. The quality of paper is defined by the length of its fibers. The longer the fibers – the higher the quality (or grade). Usually, the more times the paper has undergone the recycling procedure – the shorter its fibers. Therefore, a general “rule of thumb” is: the grayer the paper – the more recycling cycles it has been through. For example, newspapers and paper-towels represent the lower grades, since they usually make use of recycled paper. White paper for the printers is, on the other hand, usually of the highest quality – not yet recycled at all. After five to seven recycling cycles, the fibers become too short to make new paper and addition of new fibers is necessary to create paper.

One of the most popular usages of recycled paper is pulp or molded fiber packaging. However, various other usages of scrap or recycled paper exist. Among them the previously mentioned newspapers and paper towels, as well as egg cartons or grocery bags.

Recycling procedure.

The process of paper recycling consists of several stages.

  1. The first stage is paper collection. The biggest amount comes in a form of used paper from the consumers. However, paper trimmings from the manufactures also end up in the recycling process. Furthermore, some paper is discarded after it left the production site  but before it reaches the customer. That paper usually ends up collected for recycling as well.
  2. The second stage is sorting the paper according to its grade. As discussed above, the length of the fibers defines the grade of the paper.
  3. After sorting comes storing in the recycling facility or “recycling mill”.
  4. Consequently, some chemicals are added to the paper to remove the leftover admixtures. These admixtures can include aluminum, ink and other contaminants.
  5. Then special machines cut the paper into small pieces and heat these pieces up. This breaks paper down further into fibers. The resulting mixture has the name of pulp, or slurry. Dedicated screens then remove any impurities that may still be in the mixture. Then the mixture is cleaned, de-inked, bleached, and more water is added to it.

 

 

 

[1] EarthWorks Group. 1990. “The Recycler’s Handbook”. Berkeley, CA: The EarthWorks Press

Plastic recycling

Plastic Waste

Plastic materials are one of the most used materials in Europe. It is the most popular form of food-packaging worldwide. Apart from that obvious role, areas like agriculture, construction or car industry – all make use of some plastics. As a result of this extensive usage, in 2003 the Netherlands alone produced 1,2 million tons of plastic waste. That is a very big amount for a country with relatively small population – 17 million people – imagine the impact of Germany or the United States!

The biggest amount of plastic waste – approximately 45% – consists of household waste. That number is so high due to the fact that almost every food item purchased in a supermarket comes in a plastic package. Meat packages, cheese slices, butter packs, ready-made dishes – all are packed with ridiculous amounts of plastic. My favorite example is a typical lunch salad from a supermarket. Not only the whole package is plastic, but almost every ingredient has a separate compartment made of this non-biodegradable material!

Plastic package

Soft drink bottles, and packages like shampoos or shower gels form another enormous source of plastic waste worldwide. In many countries, where tap water is not safe to drink, this problem is even more urgent. As a result of bad quality of tap water people have to purchase big bottles of drinking water almost every day. Unfortunately, those countries are also the ones with very poor recycling policies.

Recycling

The worst of it all – only about 5% of all the plastic waste is being recycled. Most of it ends up in huge land damps, or even worse, in the world’s ocean. There have been horrifying predictions of more plastic than fish in the ocean as soon as 2050. Plastic waste in the ocean has very sad consequences, which most people never even think about. Multiple reports show show large fish and turtles suffocating on carelessly thrown away plastic bags and packages. Even if such a package eventually breaks down in the sea water, it releases dangerous chemicals in the process. If we don’t think about the environment, we should at least think about ourselves. These chemicals are eventually consumed by various fish and may end up in the human food chain.

Buying less products with a one-time use packaging and, most of all, recycling, are the answers to those problems.

Plastic recycling practices

There are three most-popular recycling practices for plastic.

  • The first one consists of simply burning it down to produce energy. This is where most of the used plastic ends up. The method is, however, widely criticized due to the fact that the obtained energies are not compensating for the energies required for new plastic production. Moreover, the process results in releasing dangerous gases to the atmosphere.
  • A relatively new and still rare recycling procedure includes converting plastics into fuels and carbons.
  • Finally, a practice that should be way more wide-spread than it currently is – reusing plastics! It’s the most environmentally-friendly way of recycling plastics. The waste is collected, subsequently melted and further re-used to create new items – from single-use cutlery to children’s toys.

The bottom line is – everyone can contribute to a more sustainable society. Start today with buying a reusable water bottle and separating your waste!

 

If you would like to read more about the types of plastic and their utilization procedures, please check out this post.