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The Benefits of Paper Recycling: Why Recycle Paper?

Paper Recycling Saves Energy, Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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Recycle symbol on cardboard
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Paper recycling has been around for a long time. Actually, when you think about it, paper has been a recycled product from the very beginning. For the first 1,800 years or so that paper existed, it was always made from discarded materials.

What are the most significant benefits of paper recycling?
Recycling paper conserves natural resources, saves energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and keeps landfill space free for other types of trash that can't be recycled.

Recycling one ton of paper can save 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, 380 gallons of oil, 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space and 4,000 kilowatts of energy-enough to power the average U.S. home for six months-and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one metric ton of carbon equivalent (MTCE).

Who invented paper?
A Chinese official named Ts'ai Lun was the first person to make what we would consider paper. In 105 AD, at Lei-Yang, China, Ts'ai Lun stirred together a combination of rags, used fishing nets, hemp and grass to make the first real paper the world had ever seen. Before Ts'ai Lun invented paper, people wrote on papyrus, a natural reed used by ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to create the paper-like material from which paper derives its name.

Those first sheets of paper Ts'ai Lun made were pretty rough, but over the next few centuries as papermaking spread throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the process improved and so did the quality of the paper it produced.

When did paper recycling begin? Papermaking and producing paper from recycled materials came to the United States simultaneously in 1690, when William Rittenhouse, who had learned to make paper in Germany, founded America's first paper mill on Monoshone Creek near Germantown, which is now Philadelphia. Rittenhouse made his paper from discarded rags of cotton and linen. It wasn't until the 1800s that people in the United States started making paper from trees and wood fiber.

On April 28, 1800, an English papermaker named Matthias Koops was granted the first patent for paper recycling-English patent no. 2392, titled Extracting Ink from Paper and Converting such Paper into Pulp. In his patent application, Koops described his process as, "An invention made by me of extracting printing and writing ink from printed and written paper, and converting the paper from which the ink is extracted into pulp, and making thereof paper fit for writing, printing, and other purposes."

In 1801, Koops opened a mill in England that was the first in the world to produce paper from material other than cotton and linen rags-specifically from recycled paper. Two years later, the Koops mill declared bankruptcy and closed, but Koops' patented paper-recycling process was later used by paper mills all over the world.

Municipal paper recycling started in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1874, as part of the nation's first curbside recycling program. And in 1896, the first recycling center opened in New York City. From those early efforts, paper recycling has continued to grow until, today, more paper is recycled (if measured by weight) than all of the glass, plastic and aluminum combined.

How much paper is recycled every year? In 2010, 63.5 percent of the paper used in the United States was recovered for recycling, an average of 334 pounds for every man, woman and child nationwide and an 89 percent increase in the recovery rate since 1990, according to the American Forest & Paper Association.

Approximately 80 percent of U.S. paper mills use some recovered paper fiber to produce new paper and paperboard products.

How many times can the same paper be recycled? Paper recycling does have limits. Every time paper is recycled, the fiber becomes shorter, weaker and more brittle. In general, paper can be recycled up to seven times before it must be discarded.

To learn more about recycling different materials, check out the following articles:

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