Paper Recycling, Explained
Updated: May 17
Welcome to the wonderful world of paper recycling! Paper and fiber embody more than just one aspect of the circular economy, and there’s more to paper than just recycling it the right way. From your bin to the product’s next life, we break down the basics on how paper recycling works.
Paper & the Circular Economy
Paper (and other kinds of fiber) is a valuable part of the circular economy. Actually, multiple levels of the circular economy. Paper is made from the renewable resource of trees and plants, is highly recyclable, and is also part of something called the nutrient cycle.
Paper is a Renewable Resource
With sustainable management, trees and other plants used to make paper like bamboo or sugarcane, are infinitely renewable. This makes plant-based products, like paper, also renewable. One principle of the circular economy is keeping materials in use continuously, which makes renewable resources particularly valuable. In fact, recycled paper is sometimes referred to as the urban forest because it can be harvested and then recycled into new products.
“Harvesting the Urban Forest is taking used materials that would go to the landfill and harvesting those materials to make new products, thereby diverting it from landfills.” Cathy Foley, Pratt Industries
Paper and the Nutrient Cycle
Paper and fiber is a unique commodity in the circular economy because of its role in the nutrient cycle, and its usefulness even after recyclability diminishes. Paper is not infinitely recyclable— it can only be recycled about 5 to 7 times. However, some paper that is no longer recyclable can be composted instead as part of the nutrient cycle, where valuable nutrients return to the soil to grow new plants and trees. The nutrient cycle is nature’s method of recycling and is a vital part of a healthy, thriving planet.
Paper is Highly Recyclable
Paper recycling has been around since the industrial era. In fact, much of the first paper was made from old rags and linens, forming rag recycling businesses. This is exactly the sort of practice that the circular economy embraces—taking waste material and making it into a useful product.
Today, paper recycling is more advanced than in industrial times, but it still follows the same principle of creating new material from old. If you are recycling paper in Indiana, your paper likely goes to Pratt Industries, a paper recycler located in Valparaiso. By recycling paper into 100% recycled cardboard, Pratt Industries' Close-The-Loop Program creates a true circular economy.
How Paper Recycling Works
Paper recycling is a lengthy process. Watch the How It’s Made segment on how paper recycling works, and then follow our step-by-step guide for more detailed information.
Collection and Sortation
Paper recycling starts when you put paper in your recycling bin. The bin is collected and taken to a material recovery facility or MRF where the paper is sorted by type. This may seem simple, but there are actually 52 different grades of paper, and not all of them are recyclable. Non-recyclable paper is removed, and recyclable paper is compacted into giant bales using large machinery.
After sorting and baling, the paper is transported to a processing facility, which will do the work of making new paper from old. In Indiana, paper is transported to Pratt Industries in Valparaiso. Company-wide, Pratt Industries processes 3 millions tons of paper every year and makes it into 100% recycled cardboard, turning waste into resources. The Valparaiso facility employs over 500 workers and processes 370,000 tons of recycled paper each year.
Preparation and Sortation
Once at the Pratt Industries facility, the bales of paper are broken apart, sorted, and fed onto a conveyor belt with the right mix of paper types. Different kinds of paper have different fiber lengths, which impact the quality of the paper. By sorting and mixing a variety of types of paper, all with different fiber lengths, Pratt Industries is able to use different kinds of paper to create cardboard that is both 100% recycled and high quality.
Shredding and Mixing
After sorting, the paper is shredded and mixed with water and chemicals to make a giant slurry of pulp. The slurry is agitated, or spun, to ensure the right mix to create cardboard and remove contaminants.Tape, adhesives, metals, and plastic envelope windows are removed at the beginning of the slurry process, while ink is removed towards the end of the mixing process by mixing a special chemical into the slurry.
Screening and Rolling
The slurry of paper pulp is screened onto a conveyor belt where most of the water is removed by large rollers. At Pratt Industries, waste water is recaptured and used again, reducing the amount of water they use in their recycling process.
Drying and Spooling
The paper pulp, still on the conveyor belt, is passed through a series of heated rollers and air dryers to remove the final amount of moisture. The pulp is pressed, flattened, and rolled onto gigantic spools—creating the paper we all recognize!
To turn the paper into boxes, the paper is layered into sheets of corrugated cardboard sheets, which are then cut into various size boxes.
Closing the Loop
Paper recycling is a valuable part of the circular economy, and it’s happening right here in Indiana! If you want to know more about the different commodities, how they fit into the circular economy, and the organizations doing circular work in Indiana, make sure you subscribe to our newsletter and follow @CircularIndiana on social media!
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