Following the Recycled Paper Trail

On ENN we talk a lot about the importance of recycling and sustainability.  Over the last year and a half  we have had articles addressing the recycling of a range of items, including food, batteries, and clothing, to name a few.  I am a religious recycler, but honestly I am not well educated on what happens after the municipal truck comes to my home to pick my recyclables. How does a used sheet a paper turn into a product made from like paper towels or a news paper?

I decided to step out of my shell of ignorance to investigate what really happens.  Below you will see a quick summary of the journey a piece of paper or cardboard must go through to be recycled.



Collection of recyclables varies depending on the community/municipality. The main 4 types of collection are: curbside, drop-off centers, buy-back centers, and deposit/refund programs.

Initial Sorting

If your town recyclable program uses single stream recycling (all types of recyclables are comingled) the recyclables need to be sorted before going to a materials recovery facility.


Paper is chopped up and water is added.


The paper pulp is pushed through a screen that removes unwanted materials (like staples).


A centrifuge is used to separate fibers that are more solid than the rest.


The pulp is mixed with a surfactant to collect and discard ink particles from the pulp.


Water is passed through the pulp to further clean it. If the desired end product is white paper product, bleach is sometimes added.

Dissolved Air Flotation

Dissolved air floatation is used to clean the water used in the recycling process so that it can be reused again.

Re-Use of Processed Paper

The material is now ready to be re-used/manufactured. The materials recovery facility can sell the cleaned paper byproduct to other companies that can turn it into a finished product.


Recycle Paper via Shutterstock

Shredded Paper via Shutterstock

by Maddie Perlman-Gabel

Thursday, November 7th, 2013 at 11:20
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