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Nearly 64% of paper used in USA was recovered from recycling in 2010. This is more than any other material — 35% for metal, 27% glass, and 8% plastic. The industry has a target of 70% by 2020. Every day US papermakers recycle enough paper to fill a 15-mile-long train of boxcars.

Paper mills have always recycled their own material — paper that got damaged in the manufacturing process. This clean waste is called broke, and can be encountered in a print shop too, where the press makeready process can result in a quantity of broke. This reuse only makes sense: no point in paying for your raw material, then paying again to dispose of it. Almost any paper you use will have recycled fiber in it. The truly “recycled” papers will include a stated amount of post-consumer fiber.

Once the paper has been printed though it can’t be fed directly back into the system. The ink will have to be removed from it before it can be reused. Printed waste (and we all see lots of that on any visit to a printing plant) and post-consumer waste (the stuff your local authority picks up) gets pulped and “washed” to remove the ink. All those unsold books that get wasted end up (one hopes) in this stream. There’s a limit to the number of times this can be done before the end product begins to look dingy — the ultimate fate for much recycled paper is to be made into container board.

The waste paper business is affected directly by fluctuations in the economic cycle. With less economic activity there’s less demand for packaging where much of the recycled fiber ends up. Recently we have been seeing reports of the ships hauling goods from China returning with flattened cardboard cartons, as there just wasn’t enough demand for the fiber here. Here’s the 2013 breakdown of recycled paper usage from the American Forest and Paper Association.

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Paper recycling is firmly established in New York City. Here’s a truck picking up from the local supermarket.

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