How to Recycle Office Paper

Photo: gringer/Flickr.

Despite how digital we are, the amount of paper generated annually in the United States is astounding: according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2009 report, “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States,” we use 68 million tons of paper and paperboard per year to generate more than 2 billion books, 350 million magazines and 24 billion newspapers. Four million of those tons come from office workers, each of whom uses some 10,000 sheets of copy paper every year.

Fortunately, the recycling rate for paper and paper products in the U.S. is high: more than 60 percent was recycled in 2009, according to the solid waste report. However, there is always room for improvement: according to the EPA, 90 percent of the municipal solid waste generated in offices is paper. If you are wondering how to recycle office paper and minimize waste at your workplace, consider these tips and issues:

  • Print less frequently. You will not only save paper, but electricity and ink as well. Encourage electronic sharing of documents and messages, and add a disclaimer to all outgoing emails suggesting recipients do the same.
  • Purchase as much office paper as possible made with recycled content, as well as eco-friendly office products such as refillable pens, rechargeable batteries and CFL lightbulbs.
  • Invest in recycling bins in strategic locations, such as next to the copy machine, in the break room (to catch newspapers and magazines), at cash registers (for retail establishments), near mailboxes/mail distribution and within cubicle clusters. Make sure to label bins – and send around an email – stating what is acceptable to recycle and what will contaminate the bins.
  • Designate someone to answer employee questions, empty the bins, and build momentum for the program. Though you may not be able to pay this person, offer him or her an incentive or prize.
  • Incentives work well for keeping employees focused. See which department can recycle the most paper, or who can collect the most magazines, for example.

Some common questions about office paper recycling include:

  1. What is mixed paper? Separate from plain white office paper are paper products such as color copies, letterhead, corrugated cardboard boxes, old newspapers, magazines and catalogs, and shredded paper. Consider collecting white paper and mixed paper in different bins, as white paper is of higher value.
  2. What cannot be recycled? Educate employees about what can contaminate the paper stream: plastic; food waste; metal and glass. According to the EPA, most mills that recycle paper have the capacity to remove staples, and many also can remove the adhesive on sticky notes. However, it is best to remove large binder clips and reuse them.
  3. Where can I find more information? The EPA, as well as several environmental organizations and other companies, have created guides to reducing office paper waste and starting office paper recycling programs. ForestEthics, a non-profit organization in the U.S. and Canada that works to protect endangered wildlife and forests, created “The Business Guide to Paper Reduction.” The EPA website, as well as the environmental news website, also features extensive resources for setting up an office paper recycling program.