What happens when we recycle paper?
What's the difference between upcycling and downcycling? What is the truth about plastic-coated paper? Can we leave the staples in? The strange renewable life of paper, or, pulp nonfiction.
You know that feeling when you’re sorting the plastics from the paper and the cans and it feels like, man, what’s the point? Does it even matter if the pizza box has cheese grease and a rancid mushroom on it? Will it make a difference if a piece of lined paper is completely saturated in sharpied notes from an old work meeting? This is recyclable, right? I’m pretty sure it’s fine. There must be some paper-processing magic that goes on that neutralizes everything we toss in the blue box, right? RIGHT?
I remember when I spent hours in my parents’ basement, sipping iced tea and sitting on my butt, sorting through boxes full of old papers and notebooks from high school and university days. Worth keeping or an embarrassment that should be burned? They turned out to be neither, most of the time.
One by one I tossed pages into an old cooler I’d found down there. The paper mountain grew and grew and I finally hauled it out to the garage, but by the time I got out there I realized I’d forgotten to take out all the staples. And there were a lot. I’m already the kind of person who haaaates doing a job twice so if there was any way to get out of this one I was gonna find it.
I thought I’d heard somewhere that you can leave them in, but also that putting non-recyclable stuff into the recycling can ruin the entire batch (I have heard this about composting also, but that’s a topic for another post). It turns out there are some pretty cool things happening behind the scenes to make sure as much paper gets recycled and used again as possible!
Basically, when you toss a pizza box and a pile of junk mail into the recycling bin and it gets taken to be processed (thanks, waste management peeps!), every piece is sorted based on its weight and recycling history (beefy cardboard to one pile, coated card stock to another, and newspaper to another, and so on).
The more times something has been recycled, the more wear and tear the fibres have been through and the weaker their bonds will be when they’re put back together again. Imagine the difference between tearing nice long strips from printer paper and the futility of trying to pull the thin, brown paper towel from the holder and having it tear off in your fingers. The shorter the fibre strands, the less hardy the material! And different paper products can only be made by specific qualities of pulp.
Once sorted, the piles move down the line to a big ol’ shredder where they’re pulverized into wee bits and dropped off at a hot tub party with all their pals. Water, mixed with additives like hydrogen peroxide, sodium hydroxide, and sodium silicate help to separate the fibres and break down the chunks into a thick oatmealy pulp. Hungry yet?
This is where paper recycling shares some similarities to plastic recycling. In plastics, non-recycled “virgin” plastic is introduced to recycled plastic in quantities just high enough to affect colour and texture in the final product. For paper, non-recycled pulp can also be added to enhance the quality of paper produced by a less hardy mix.
Downcycling, the recycling concept where the final product is of a lower quality or functionality than the materials it’s made from, would be a typical outcome of the paper recycling industry if not for introducing a little bit of non-recycled pulp in the mix. It allows for smaller amounts of wood pulp to be harvested while extending the life of more degraded paper.
With the fresh additions to the slurry, we’re looking at more of an upcycling situation where the final product is actually more valuable than the sum of its parts. Seems like a cool way to maximize the lifespan of recyclables and I’m totally into that.
Ok so now things get fun, from the perspective of how bad can we be when we try to be good.
While the paper soup churns (ugh), the hot tub mixture separates and clumps glues and plastics, a centrifuge pulls heavy stuff away, and magnets fish out metal debris. Officially, these processes sort out all the stuff that can get into the paper recycling pile that shouldn’t be there, but that aren’t dealbreakers. Paper clips. Plastic envelope windows. Tape. Glue. STAPLES.
That’s right, people. Leave your staples in! Free yourself!
Great, we’ve got a few things solved. Let’s go for another.
I’ve always wondered about the super high-gloss, plasticky postcards from like, the local real estate office. They almost don’t feel like paper and there’s more use for them making thunder sounds in a middle school production of Macbeth. Even so, in between the shiny coating and the layers of ink, there’s still good stuff that’s worth using again. But I’m not gonna think too hard about how much overtime the hot tub puts in for stuff like that.
Whew, we’re on a roll now.
As for grody old pizza boxes, it’s a bit of a different story. Food debris can compromise the effectiveness of the hot tub solution and contaminate the pulp, so unless it had a wax paper liner and all the grease got the heave-ho, it’s better in the compost. Same goes for the newspaper from your fish and chips, or other paper that’s gotten wet or still has a bit of food on it.
By the time I got around to transferring the mountain of papers from the cooler in to the blue box, it was obvious that I wasn’t diving back in to remove the staples. At least now I can sleep at night. And who knows, maybe the good papers will be turned into books and the rest will go on to live their next lives in a gas station bathroom.
Both recycled for a good cause!
Thanks for hanging with me, nerds. See ya next time!
Your friend, Nat
PS. If you needed a sign, this is it. Go do the thing, say the stuff, be brave. Remember that Black lives and futures matter. Indigenous lives and futures matter. Your voice matters and your life matters. I will always believe these things and you can always come to me to talk about it IRL.