If all paper cannot be made from 100% recycled fiber, what should we use?

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This article is sponsored by: Domtar. 

Recycling paper was one of the earliest and most important actions individuals and companies took to treat our natural world more gently.

But despite great advances in paper recycling, we don’t have enough recycled paper fiber to go around.

So, if we cannot make every new product from recycled paper, which products should be made from recycled and which should use sustainably grown new fiber?

A new tool is being developed to help answer that question. But first, let’s explain why we need it in the first place.

A record-high 66.8 percent of all paper used in the United States was recovered for recycling in 2015, nearly double the rate of 33.5 percent in 1990, according to the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA). This is great news, and it makes paper one of the most recycled products on the planet.

This success was achieved through a collective effort — by the environmental community and sound public and private policies — that increased recovery rates and the demand for recycled products. Together, we are building on that progress toward the goal of achieving the practical maximum paper recovery rate, which is about 80 percent a year.

Why only 80 percent? Because some paper products simply can’t go back into the paper production system. Greasy food boxes and bathroom tissue are prime examples of things that can’t be recycled for sanitary reasons. Some paper is used to create other products that can’t be recycled back into new paper, such as drywall, insulation and pet bedding. We also use some paper for a long time, such as books, birth certificates and photo paper that help us learn, record history and be entertained.

Furthermore, every time paper is recycled, its fibers break down a little. This makes it difficult to use those fibers to make the same type of paper again and again. Ultimately, paper fibers can be recycled only five to seven times before they become too short and weak to make new paper.

So, we will always need new fiber from sustainably managed forests to make some of the paper products we use. And today’s new fiber is tomorrow’s recycled fiber.

People and businesses that want to minimize the environmental impact of their paper use should ask: Which products that I buy should be made with recycled content and which should be made using new fiber from sustainably managed forests?

Until now, we have not had a tool that provides a comprehensive understanding of the paper system to help answer this question. So in 2014, Domtar helped bring together the paper industry, through the AF&PA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to take a holistic look at paper flows (PDF) in the U.S. economy. Using AF&PA’s knowledge of the paper industry and MIT’s knowledge of systems dynamics, the project is creating a simulation tool to understand the environmental tradeoffs of changes in recycled content levels for various paper products.

We are encouraged by this work and believe it will be a game-changer in helping all of us make better decisions about resource use, policy and procurement. Having a holistic understanding of recycled fiber flows in the economy will help us avoid unintended consequences and maximize the environmental benefits of using recycled paper.

We look forward to sharing updates about the tool and continuing to work with our customers and partners to encourage paper recycling and the use of paper made from responsibly sourced fiber.

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