Published 24th of May 2021
It’s one of the easiest materials to recycle in the UK, but how does paper recycling actually work? And does it really make a difference to the environment, or is it just something we do to make ourselves feel better?
Paper recycling in the UK - then to now
Recycling used paper in the UK can be traced back to the 19th century, when paper manufacturers started buying second-hand books, recycling the old paper to enable them to meet the demand for new. Techniques perfected in Germany in the 18th century allowed the ink to be removed from these old pages.
As the environmental benefit of recycling paper and other materials became more apparent throughout the 20th century, recycling became more commonplace for businesses and households who had no financial reason to do so.
In 1999 the EU introduced stricter recycling regulations, leading to a UK target to reduce biodegradable waste in landfill by 75% from the 1995 total by 2010. This led to a roll-out of roadside collections for biodegradable waste, with paper and garden waste the most commonly collected items.
Fast forward to 2021, and recent figures from the Confederation of Paper Industries show that over 7 million tonnes of waste paper and cardboard are collected for recycling each year, amounting to 738k tonnes of tissue reel production.
Paper Recycling Process
Step 1: Collection
The paper recycling process starts with the business, home or organisation creating the paper waste and storing it in their paper waste bins. Once the paper is collected by a professional service provider it is transported to a secure shredding depot.
Step 2: Shredding and Pulping
The paper is then finely shredded, breaking down the material into small pieces. The paper is then graded into different quantities and pulped into tanks with a large amount of water and chemicals to break down and separate the fibres of the paper.
Once the pulp is formed it is passed through a number of screens to remove any debris. Electromagnets pick up any metals, like paperclips and staples.
Step 3: De-inking
The fibres are cleaned and deinked several times in a flotation tank, making them whiter and whiter. This step repeatedly bleaches the pulp until it is ready for the final stage.
Step 4: Drying and testing
It’s passed over a vibrating machine or through rollers to remove most of the water. The water is sent back to the beginning of the process and the remaining material is now half fibre and half water.
The sheets are passed over heated rollers with a temperature of up to 130 degrees. The water content reduces by 5%, making the paper whiter, smoother and useable.
The paper is then tested to make sure it reaches the correct standard and quality for strength, gloss and brightness. The rolls are divided into smaller reels or sheets, packed ready to be sent to manufacturers that use paper to make their product.
Some recycling plants will have processes that look slightly different, but this is the method that has been used to turn the thousands of tonnes of the paper we’ve shredded over the years into new products ready for consumption.
Check out our recycling infographic for a more visual representation of the process.
Why is it important to recycle paper?
1. Biodegradable doesn’t mean good for the environment
Biodegradable products can be good for the environment, but paper is not. When it biodegrades, paper releases methane, which is one of the greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. While paper might not clog up landfill sites forever, its decay isn’t good news for the atmosphere. The more paper we can recycle, the less methane will end up in the atmosphere long term.
2. Recycling paper means a lower demand for new materials
Trees aren’t easy to replace. A typical hardwood core used to make paper takes around 100 years to grow, which means it’s a lot easier to cut trees down than it is to grow them. Deforestation is a major problem around the world, but the UK is a leader in the use of recycled fibre to make new paper, with 70% of fibre coming from paper and cardboard waste.
3. Recycling paper is less energy intensive than making it from scratch
According to one source, making paper from recycled materials uses 45% less energy than making it from scratch. This makes it cheaper and more environmentally friendly. In the UK, the difference is even more pronounced, as we have to import many of our raw materials (our land mass is only 12% wood), whereas we can collect waste material from our own country.
What can we make with recycled paper?
Recycling anything only works if there’s something to recycle it into. On an industrial scale, recycled paper can be made into all manner of paper products, depending on its quality at the start. Higher grade paper waste might see life again as another stack of office paper or cardboard, while lower grade waste can be blown into toilet paper or tissue paper.
We believe in the power of recycling, and we are committed to recycling 100% of the paper waste we collect, as well as working with WEEE recyclers to recycle all electrical waste we shred.