101 Guide | How to Recycle Paper

We recycle a lot of paper in the U.S., and that's a good thing. In fact, our rate of recycling paper has reached or exceeded 63 percent every year since 2009. That far exceeds the 8.5 percent rate for plastics and 13 percent for recycling clothing and footwear. However, even though we recycle plastic and recycle clothing at a lower rate, with paper accounting for 33 percent of our garbage each year, we still throw a lot of paper products away.

It would be nice to think we could just put all paper products in the recycle bin to be whisked away and turned into new paper products. But that's not how it works. There are some guidelines for recycling paper products and some that can't be recycled – yet.

Paper Grades and What They Mean

The majority of curbside recycling programs accept some grades of paper. If the paper passes the tear test – you can easily tear it – then it can probably be put in your curbside recycling bin. But things get more complicated when it comes to different grades of paper, which are:

  • Old-corrugated containers (OCC) – cardboard boxes used for shipping.
  • Old newspapers (ONP) – newspapers and newsprint flyers.
  • High-grade deinked paper -- copier paper, letterhead, envelopes. They must first be deinked before they can be reprocessed into paper products such as printing and writing paper.
  • Mixed paper -- most other paper, such as mail, magazines, phone books, and cartons.
  • Pulp substitutes – generally found in paper mills and print shops and are recycled by the mills themselves.

Each grade has a different value, with OCC generally the highest and mixed paper the lowest.

General Tips for Recycling Paper

  1. Try not to get your paper recycling wet, and this can reduce its value on the recycling market. If you have single-stream recycling (all recycling goes into one bin), empty your containers before recycling them so that their contents don't drain out and get your paper wet. Check the forecast for rain, wait until the morning to put out paper recycling.
  2. Shredding paper reduces the length of the fibers and makes it harder to recycle into new paper. Use a marker to black out sensitive information instead of shredding it. The ink can be easily removed during the recycling process. If you are worried about sensitive information, contact your local recycling program for directions on how to recycle shredded paper.
  3. Check what types of paper your municipal recycling program accepts, as some only take certain grades. Be sure to ask about plastic-lined paper goods, such as cartons and frozen food boxes.
  4. Save room in your recycling bin by breaking down cardboard boxes.

Why Can't Wet Paper and Cardboard Be Recycled?

When paper and cardboard are recycled, the materials are mixed with water to become a slurry. When paper gets wet and dries, the fibers are manipulated and feel stiffer. In addition, paper mills don't want to pay for wet paper or cardboard because it is heavier with this extra water weight.

What to Do with Food-Soiled or Wet Paper or Boxes?

Since there is no recycling market for these items, throw them in the trash, or use them as kindling for fires in winter. If only a portion of the paper has food on it, such as the grease on a pizza box, you can tear off that portion and recycle the rest.

How to Recycle Newspaper

Almost all curbside programs take newspaper, as it can easily be made into new newsprint and other paper products. Put it in the bin with the rest of your recycling. The same rules apply for wet or food contaminated paper, it's a no. When newspaper is recycled, it is mixed with water and becomes a slurry. Oil and grease will contaminate the slurry.

Throw food-soiled newspaper in the trash, or tear off the soiled part before recycling. If the newspaper is wet, then you can still put it in the recycle bin.

What about the Plastic Bag Wrapped around the Newspaper?

You can recycle the plastic bag that the newspaper comes in, but not in your curbside recycling bin. Take it to your local grocery store to be recycled with the plastic bags.

How to Recycle Paper Bags

Brown paper grocery bags and brown paper lunch bags can be recycled with your other paper recycling. However, shopping bags from department stores are often a combination of plastic and paper, similar to frozen food boxes that have a plastic lining. They may not be recyclable by your recycling program, so you should check to see if they are or if there is another way to recycle them. If there is no recycling option, take a reusable bag with you instead.

When it comes to wet or food-soiled paper bags, the guidelines above apply. Wet is okay, but food-soiled is not. Follow the guidelines above for these items.

What about Paper Bags that Have Glue on Them?

Most glues used on paper bags are water-soluble, so they can be removed during the recycling process. Check with yours to find out for sure.

What about Paper Bags with Handles?

Paper handles are fine to recycle, but if they are made from string, ribbon, or plastic, they should be removed before you put them in the bin.

How to Recycle Books and Magazines

Books, magazines, catalogs, and phone books are graded as mixed paper and have a smaller recycling market than office paper, newsprint, and corrugated cardboard. However, most recycling programs take these items.

Prepare Books, Magazines, and Phone Books for Recycling

  • For magazines, you can leave the cover, binding, and staples intact as well as cardstock and perfume samples.
  • If the magazine was mailed to you in a plastic bag, you should remove the bag and recycle it separately.
  • For paperback books, leave the book intact, including the binding, and simply place it in the bin. For hardcovers, remove the cover as they generally have non-paper components.
  • Books or magazines that have gotten wet or if the paper has turned brown or tan, throw them away. This material has no recycling value.
  • For phone books, be sure to check for extra items such as magnets and recycle the plastic bag it comes in at your grocery store.

How to Recycle Cardboard

Corrugated cardboard is made of long paper fibers, which makes it durable and recyclable. It is the highest value grade of paper and one of the most recycled.

Prepare Cardboard for Recycling

Since most cardboard boxes are used to ship things, you need to empty them of shipping materials like plastic bags, packing peanuts, and bubble wrap.

  • Cut the tape that sealed the box on top and the bottom so that it is easily collapsible. You don't have to take the tape off, however, most recyclers want the boxes flattened to save space.
  • For large boxes, you may have to fold the box or cut it so that it will fit into your recycle bin. Some programs may let you put large boxes next to the bin, but again, if rain is forecast, wait until morning. Like wet paper, there is no recycling market for wet cardboard.
  • For food-soiled boxes, especially oily or greasy boxes (pizza boxes fall into this category), cut any food-soiled areas off begore putting it in the bin to keep the oil or food from contaminating the rest of the recycling.

Why Don't I have to Remove the Tape and Labels from Shipping Boxes?

Tape, labels, and ink are filtered out during the recycling process.

What's the Difference between Paperboard and Corrugated Cardboard?

Most of us refer to all boxes as cardboard, but shipping boxes are corrugated cardboard. These are the boxes with a zig-zag layer between two layers, making them tough and sturdy for shipping. Thinner and less durable, paperboard is the material used in cereal boxes. They have different paper grades and recycling values.

What about Recycling Pizza Boxes?

Recycling pizza boxes remain a source of confusion. It's hard to give up the dream of recycling that big cardboard box. But don't just throw it in the bin and wishcycle it. You're likely to contaminate not just your cardboard recycling but every else's as well. Follow the advice above and remove any parts that are contaminated with grease or oil. If you are not sure, it's safer to toss the whole box in the garbage.

How to Recycle Paper Cups

Because paper cups have an inner lining of plastic coating, and this coating can't be easily separated from the paper, they are not currently recyclable in the U.S. However, you may have better luck with the cardboard sleeve and plastic lid.

The cardboard sleeve can be recycled with corrugated cardboard in your recycle bin. The plastic lid is recyclable if your local recycling program takes #1-7 plastics in non-bottle form. The best solution is to use as few paper cups as possible. Many coffee shops let you bring in your own reusable mug or thermos. And fast-food restaurants often sell large, reusable plastic cups. In some instances, you can get a discount for reusing a thermos or cup.

How to Recycle Cartons

Cartons used for milk, soy or grain milk, juice, and soup are recyclable. Curbside programs are increasingly allowing these items in recycling bins, and there are mail-in and drop-off options. These cartons contain materials that can be used to make tissue, paper towels, and even some building materials, making them a valuable resource.

Should the Plastic Cap Be Removed?

As a general rule, plastic lids, caps, and straws should be removed from empty cartons, then rinse them to keep the rest of the recycling from being contaminated. Contact your local recycling program for specific instructions.

How to Recycle Gift Boxes, Bags, and Wrapping Paper

Gift boxes are generally accepted by curbside recycling programs, so they go in the bin. Gift bags are a little trickier. Look for a drop-off location or see if your community has any recycling events scheduled to collect holiday decorations and items such as gift bags.

When it comes to gift wrap or wrapping paper, it depends on the type of paper you have. If it contains things like plastics or glitter, it can't be recycled. If it is free of these materials, you may be able to include it in your regular curbside recycling but check first.