Office Paper Recycling

The Big Picture

With paper comprising up to 40% of the municipal solid waste stream, paper recycling is an obvious and easy way to reduce waste in the workplace. By recycling paper and using recycled paper, trees are spared -- every ton of paper made from recycled fiber saves approximately 17 trees. Cutting down carbon-absorbing trees contributes to global warming, soil erosion, habitat destruction, and other environmental problems. Paper recycling also makes good business sense -- company disposal costs can dramatically decrease with the advent of a paper recycling program.


Reprocessing can turn recycled paper into other paper products numerous times before the paper fibers are too weak to use. White office paper retains much of its value and goes into products such as tissue, paperboard, stationery, magazines, new office paper, and various other paper products. Mixed paper, which includes glossy and colored paper, envelopes, and sticky notes, is less valuable than white paper but also can be recycled into various products. Newsprint and corrugated cardboard can find new lives as the same or similar products. White ledger paper, computer paper, corrugated cardboard, newspaper, paper packaging, envelopes, and other mixed papers can be recycled in most areas.

In order to help create robust markets for recycled paper products, businesses and consumers also need to purchase products made from recycled paper. A paper recycling program should operate in tandem with efforts to purchase office products made from recycled content. In our look at what it would take to make a zero waste office, we provide a number of resources for greening paper use and purchases as well as other aspects of the office. Even though 100 percent recycled paper is out there, virgin fiber makes up a large portion of the paper that is manufactured, Tensie Whelan of the Rainforest Alliance explains. When you can't buy recycled, be sure to look for products that come from certified sustainable sources.

Key Players

  • Recycling vendors collect and recycle paper. Their ability to sell paper depends on the current state of the commodities market, which responds to demand for recycled fibers.
  • Recycling coordinators must have the time and motivation to start and maintain a recycling program.

Getting Down to Business

Companies easily integrate paper recycling into normal business operations. In addition to office paper recycling, businesses that use and receive large quantities of packaging or generate large quantities of paper waste in a manufacturing process can recycle that waste. Recycling bins placed next to employees' desks, or in common areas encourage separation and disposal of recyclable paper. Most successful programs educate employees and have an office recycling coordinator to facilitate the program. Some examples:

  • Bank of America's recycling programs grew from an initial diversion of 1,400 tons per year of computer and white paper in 1970 to divert 14,591 tons of paper in 1997. The company saved an estimated $483,000 in trash hauling fees by recycling paper. (Figures stated are pre-merger with NationsBank.) The bank has also undertaken major source reduction such as changing report procedures, reducing forms, using two-sided copying, routing slips, and e-mail.
  • Hewlett Packard diverted from landfill 78% in 1997, or approximately 91 million pounds, of solid waste. Most of this material was recycled, including 43 million pounds of paper -- an amount equivalent to more than 367,000 trees. HP also offers its own brand of recycled content office paper, containing 20% post-consumer recycled content. The company, along with other printer makers, has been adding features to products to help users reduce paper use, such as with duplex printing.
  • NYNEX, a division of Bell Atlantic, recycles old phone books into payment remittance envelopes. The envelopes contain at least 75% recycled content. "By using recycled envelopes, we are creating a new, additional market for old directories," said Ken Teal, director of Environmental Issues for NYNEX Informational Resources Co., publisher of NYNEX's White Pages and Yellow Pages. "We've now created the opportunity for every phone book to be recycled and, in fact, are beginning to realize that the demand for old phone books happily is exceeding the supply."
  • Scholastic announced in early 2008 its plan to recycled paper make up one-fourth of its total paper use, with 75 percent of that paper containing post-consumer waste. In 2007, only 11 percent of its recycled paper contained post-consumer content.

The Upside

  • Financial savings from decreased garbage disposal costs.
  • Environmental benefits from cutting fewer trees and energy savings from less virgin paper production.

Reality Check

  • Setting up an office paper recycling system typically requires a commitment from an employee or group of employees and also requires time to educate employees.
  • It may require a capital investment in recycling bins.
  • If your current waste hauler does not collect recyclables, working with an alternative vendor could increase administrative tasks and costs.
  • If the recycling vendor does not pick up recyclables, your company may have to transport materials to a recycling site, requiring staff time and transportation costs.
  • An industrial paper recycler may have difficulty finding a vendor to accept its materials, or to find space to store large quantities of recyclables such as corrugated cardboard.
  • Recycling markets can be volatile -- the price paid for recycled paper may fluctuate, making the economics of recycling occasionally unprofitable.

Action Plan

A successful paper recycling program requires employee participation and source separation of materials. Recycling bins must stay clean and free from non-paper contaminants. Some general steps to setting up an office paper recycling system are:

  • Keep it simple. The fewer changes people must make in their daily routines to recycle, the greater the chances for success.
  • Get top management support. It's critical that everyone know who's backing recycling efforts. Get the CEO, COO, or CFO involved in announcing the program and rallying support.
  • Provide sufficient instructions. Label bins or collection boxes with clear information about what to put in -- and what to keep out. Refer to specific company forms and documents by name and number, if necessary (e.g., "Put Req. Form 3503 here.").
  • Monitor and follow up. Use surveys, interviews, and inspections to see how the system is working. Spot-check recycling bins and trash cans to see if people are following directions about what to put where.
  • Seek feedback. Have someone available to answer employee questions. Ask employees their ideas on how to make the system easier to use.
  • Measure. Keep track of where paper is going: how much of what kinds of paper are being purchased, discarded, and recycled. That will help you establish recycling goals and track their progress.
  • Keep building awareness. Market recycling programs through newsletters, posters, e-mail, and company meetings. Let everyone know how the program is going, including how much trash is being saved -- or could be saved -- from landfills.
  • Reward and recognize. Give prizes -- or at least recognition -- to individuals and departments doing a good job. Consider offering incentives and motivators, such as prizes or special events, for exemplary recycling efforts.
  • Involve your waste hauler. Many firms have in-house expertise they can lend to help set up, maintain, or improve a program. Make such services-including monitoring, measuring, and reporting-part of the negotiations for your waste-hauling contract.
  • Don't rest on your laurels. Keep in mind that even the most successful recycling programs need continuous improvement, fresh thinking, and periodic overhauling.



Bottom Line

Paper recycling is straightforward and relatively easy to implement and can provide result both in cost reduction and in demonstrating to employees your company's commitment to environmental responsible practices. These days, with many large and small companies recycling at least some office and workplace papers, paper recycling represents a minimum, baseline environmental commitment for a company.

This guide was originally published Nov. 6, 2002 and updated Sept. 2, 2008.