Each year in the United States, the paper thrown in the trash represents approximately 640 million trees, or roughly 915,000 acres of forest land.
We use many types of paper in our factories, offices, and homes each day. It is used for packaging, printing, and copying, and when we are done with it, massive amounts end up in the garbage.
Overall Recycling Rate Hides the Real Problem
According to the American Forest & Paper Association, in 2012 the United States recovered 65% of all paper consumed within its borders for recycling. That’s an impressive statistic when compared to plastic packaging, which has a recovery rate of only 11%. However, if you take out corrugated cardboard, which is recycled at high rates predominantly by commercial establishments,
the overall recovery rate of all other paper products falls to 47%; the recovery rate for other paper packaging (besides cardboard) is only 22% (EPA 2013).
In fact, more than half of all printed paper and more than three quarters of all non-corrugated paper-based packaging ends up in the garbage, to the tune of around 24.1 million tons wasted each year, or about 178 lbs for each person in the United States. This is the equivalent weight of about 36 reams of office paper, which if stacked on top of each other, would be 72 inches tall.
Impact on Forests and Climate
What is the environmental impact of all the wasted paper? Using calculations from the Environmental Paper Network’s Paper Calculator, the paper thrown away each year represents approximately 640 million trees, or roughly 915,000 acres of forest land. To put
that into perspective, the state of Rhode Island is only 779,000 acres, so we’re wasting an amount of trees that’s slightly larger than a state every single year. If we recycled all this paper instead of using virgin paper, we could save approximately 27.5 million tons of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere. This is the equivalent of taking 5.2 million cars off the road each year or the amount of energy that it takes to power 1.3 million homes for a year.
Using recycled paper also reduces the need to log forests and convert them into tree plantations and allows the forests to remain as an ecosystem that provides carbon storage, greater recreational value, and wildlife habitat.
As evidenced by mature systems in Europe, extended producer responsibility (EPR) is the single most effective policy for increasing the supply and utilization of recycled paper and other paper materials. UPSTREAM works with partner groups in the Environmental Paper Network on EPR and other policies to boost paper and paper-based packaging recycling.