We throw away more paper than anything else. It’s not hard to see why: think junk mail, catalogs, telephone books, egg cartons, and packaging from online shopping.
The good news is that a lot of it is recycled.
Last year, 67 percent of the paper and paper products tossed in the United States was collected for recycling, according to the American Forest and Paper Association. That’s double the amount collected in 1990.
But sometimes, knowing what to toss in the recycling bin can be tricky. When the paper that goes to paper mills contains plastic, food residue, or other so-called “contaminants,” it messes up the recycling process. And a few items that seem like they would be recyclable as paper actually aren’t. Here’s a list of paper(-ish) products that should stay out of your recycling bin.
Yes, they are made of cardboard, but their contents pose a problem. In cities like Forest Grove, Lake Oswego and Portland, you can toss cardboard take-out pizza boxes in the food scraps bin. Otherwise they go in the garbage.
The reason: Pizza boxes often have bits of food stuck to them or are soaked with grease. And food contaminates the paper recycling process.
When paper products, such as cardboard and junk mail, get to the paper mill for recycling, they are thrown into a pulper where they are mixed with water and chemicals and shredded to form a slurry. Screens and centrifuges separate the paper fibers from heavier objects such as paper clips, staples and those little plastic windows on envelopes. But oil clings to paper fibers and can’t be separated. The oil weakens the structure of the new paper and causes splotches and stains.
The same is true for used paper napkins or paper towels, and any other paper product that has food on it.
Another contaminant that messes up new paper batches? Photographic chemicals. So keep photographs out of the recycling bin.
Frozen and refrigerated food boxes
TV dinner boxes, waffle and Popsicle containers and butter boxes should all go in the trash.
The reason: They may look the same as cereal and cookie boxes but they’re not. They’re sprayed with a penetrating plastic coating to prevent freezer burn and sogginess. In the pulper at the paper mill these boxes don’t break down in the water bath and have to be fished out.
But you can recycle milk and juice cartons, as well as those cartons, called aseptic containers, that allow things like soup and soy milk to be stored at room temperature. Manufacturers of these items have worked with recyclers and mills to invest in ways to collect and process them. These cartons aren’t sprayed with plastic. They are made of layers of paper and plastic and sometimes aluminum. And these layers are easier to separate in the pulper.
That “paper cup” of coffee or water is not just paper. It’s coated with plastic or sometimes wax to help keep your morning joe warm and to prevent leakage and sogginess. This means it is not recyclable – or compostable.
The reason: That wax or plastic coating is difficult to separate from the paper in the recycling process. Other mixed-material paper products that they can’t handle include wax paper, pet-food bags and those mailers that include bubble plastic.
Bottom line on recycling paper at home
The home recycling collection system can handle only items that can be reliably sold to buyers for use in new products. Items that can’t easily be processed on existing machinery or things that are contaminated with food or other substances should stay out of your home recycling bin.
Find a complete list of paper products that can – and can’t – go in the home bin
Recycling paper means using fewer trees and less water and energy to make new paper. But there are also ways to throw less in the bin. Take junk mail, for example. The average American household receives 100 pounds of unsolicited junk mail a year.
Find tips to reduce junk mail, phone books and other waste at home.