Different groups have researched how long it takes for different solid wastes to decompose. They get different results simply because they never study the same landfill and each landfill is set up differently.
Most of the research that I’ve done says that a paper bag can take as little as 2 weeks or as much as 5 months. This may true for most cases, but researchers have found newspapers that are dated back 40 years.
In America, paper makes up 33 percent of our solid waste stream. We use around 71 million tons of paper and cardboard and in 2010 we recycled 45 million tons. To be honest, this is a lot more than I thought.
Paper can be recycled about seven times because each time wood fibers are reprocessed (chopped, heated, pressed) they break down a bit. After about five to seven cycles, the pulp bits are so small that they simply slip through the filtering screens and end up in the wastewater. In this manner, the quality of recycled paper is not affected by pulp that is no longer useful.
There are five types of paper, also known as grades.
The five grades are:
Office paper: Generally high-grade white printer and copier paper, envelopes and letterhead.
Corrugated containers: These include boxes of all kinds, from shipping to food and shoe boxes
Mixed paper: This category is a catch-all for the other types of paper, such as phone books, magazines, junk-mail or colored papers.
Higher grades such as office paper can be recycled back into the same grade or a grade lower. Something in a lower grade such as junk mail can’t be recycled into a higher grade.
For this reason, sorted paper gives companies more versatility in what they can produce.
Once sorted, the paper is broken down in much the same way, regardless of type. Batches are soaked in a water and chemical bath in order to break them down into “pulp,” the small fibers that make paper. Next, the pulp undergoes several stages of cleaning in order to remove contaminants like glue, plastic, staples, and finally, ink. Once paper is re-bleached, if necessary, it is ready to be mixed with virgin fibers and made into paper once more. At this final stage, recycled pulp is no different from virgin pulp.
The best thing you can do is reduce your use of paper. Below are some ways you can do that.
1. Save Those Boxes: Many of your larger purchases will come in a cardboard box that you can’t wait to get rid of. The box can definitely come in handy as shipping packages, moving, gift boxes. The beauty of cardboard is that it can be collapsed into a flat sheet for easy storage under a bed, mattress or in the back of a closet. All you need to create a “new” box is some tape.
2. Recycle Your Mail: No matter how many mailing lists you unsubscribe from, you’re still going to have paper to dispose of after reading your mail. Almost all of it can be recycled as mixed paper. Be careful to shred any papers with personal information such as names, addresses, bank numbers, etc.
3. Pay Bills Online: You can reduce the amount of mail you need to recycle in the first place by signing up to receive statements via email. You’ll decrease paper use, save money on stamps and have easy access to your information online. Plus, payments posted online send you an email confirmation so you can feel confident about avoiding late fees.
4. Print Double-Sided: Computer paper has two sides; how many are you printing on? If you have a laser printer at home, you can change the setting to double-sided printing and copying. Otherwise, consider printing documents one page at a time and printing the second page on the back of the first. It may take you more time, but you’ll also have less paper to buy.
6. Get a Library Card: the library may seem out of date with internet access and national book chains, but it’s a great way to reuse paper. You can also find newspapers and magazines at the library, and sometimes even textbooks. E-readers and e-books are also a great way to save paper.
7. Make Paper Bag Book Covers: with more cities placing restrictions on the use of plastic bags, paper bags may be your packaging of choice. Well, these bags have many reuse options to keep them out of the trash, including covering your hardcover books. This also protects your books from damage and food stains. Plus, once you’re done with the cover you can still recycle the bag with the rest of your paper.