The Modern Machine

Now, instead of gathering reeds or handcrafting small batches of fibrous paper, entire forests of trees are harvested like a crop. Today, most paper is made from wood fiber, but fibers can come from a variety of sources: sawmills, recycled newspaper, vegetable matter, and recycled cloth, in the case of American currency (so money doesn’t grow on trees after all!).

No matter the raw material, the first step in the process is to reduce vegetable matter to pulp. In the case of trees, logs are passed through a debarker, where the bark is removed and wood is cut into one-inch pieces. These wood chips are cooked with water and chemicals and turned to pulp — the magic ingredient for paper production.

How is this wet, slushy pulp transformed into paper? The pulp is pumped onto a moving wire screen, where water evaporates and is recycled back into the system. What remains on the screen is a web of fibers — paper! The web is run through heated dryers to remove the remaining water, and then wound into long rolls. A slitter cuts the paper down to a more manageable size.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Since these fibers can be recycled and reused, recycling makes up a bulk of the paper supply chain. In 2011, it’s estimated that 66.8% of paper consumed in the U.S. was recycled.

Compared to the complicated plastics recycling cycle, the process of creating new paper from old paper is relatively simple. Following curbside pickup, bales of paper are delivered to a municipality’s Materials Recycling Facility (MRF). At the MRF, paper is sorted into different grades based on fiber length. Since fibers get shorter following each round of recycling, this classification system plays an important role. Newspaper, for example, is low grade since it’s already been through many recycling stages. Printer paper, on the other hand, is high grade. After seven cycles, fibers are too short to make new paper.

The sorted paper is then transported to a mill, where it’s shredded into small pieces and the recycling process can begin. A mixture of paper, water, and chemicals is heated, and the pieces are broken back down into fibers. The fibers are then pressed through a screen to remove contaminants, after which the paper is spun in a cone-shaped cylinder for cleaning and ink removal. From there, paper moves onto a conveyer belt, where water drips through the screen and paper fibers are bonded together once again.

Although recycling can be a pain, consider this: for every ton of paper recycled, we save 17 trees, 26.5 thousand liters of water, and nearly 700 gallons of oil. So the next time you need to chuck some paper, throw it in the blue bin — the planet will thank you!

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