Think about how many things have changed in the past 20 years. You’re reading this on a computer or phone, you get way more products delivered straight to your door, and chances are you don’t receive a daily newspaper on your doorstep anymore, and if you do, it’s not nearly the size it used to be.

These changes may seem disparate, but they have something in common — they’ve affected paper recyclers tremendously.  With every shift in the way we consume things comes a shift in the way recyclers do business.

The Rise of the Internet

Let’s start with what is arguably the most transformative invention of our time: the Internet. As we consume more media online, that’s led to a decline in reading printed materials. “You can imagine that newspapers over the last two decades have dropped significantly in terms of readership, thickness of the newspaper, number of pages in newspaper, and in some markets number of days it’s published,” says Myles Cohen, president of Pratt Recycling, a division of Pratt Industries, one of the world’s largest packaging and recycling companies. “The amount of newspaper in the residential stream is down 60 to 80 percent over the past 15 years.”

That drop-off goes for magazines, too. And while you may feel like you get a lot of junk mail, it’s nothing compared to what it used to be — unsolicited catalogs and brochures have declined significantly.

Junk mail isn’t what it used to be. Photo: Thinglass /

As you’ve probably guessed by now, this makes a difference when it comes to recycling. But fortunately for those who deal with the paper stream, there’s been something to replace all that lost newsprint: cardboard.

Now, you can buy things online with just the click of a button, and in some cases, have it delivered to your door in mere minutes. That’s led to far more cardboard in the residential recycling stream than ever before. In many ways, this is good for recyclers. “Corrugated cardboard is quite a valuable scrap paper product,” says Bernie Lee, a research analyst at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). “The strength of fibers is highly valued in the secondary market.”

Retailers vs. Residences

However, the commercial sector (aka businesses) is much better about recycling than individuals are, with rates above 90 percent. “Those boxes are getting shipped to residential homes, and they’re not getting recycled at the same rate as they would be if they were getting shipped to big-box stores,” Cohen says.

There are a few reasons for that. For one, there are still many residences that don’t have access to recycling, or at least easy recycling such as curbside pickup. This is particularly an issue in rural areas, but even densely populated cities can have the same trouble, given that condos and apartments often don’t have the same kind of recycling services that single-family homes do. Some consumers don’t break down boxes and set them next to their recycling bin, which might prevent them from getting picked up. Cardboard from the residential stream is also more likely to be contaminated, which makes it less valuable. For example, it isn’t cheap to hire someone to look for cheese stuck to pizza boxes, Lee points out.

“If a paper mill is buying recyclables, they’re going to buy the cleanest and highest-quality ones first and the lowest-quality ones last, so the contamination has affected the value of the recyclables,” Cohen explains. “Residential has anywhere from a 15 to 20 percent contamination rate, and there are some cities that have experienced up to 30 percent contamination.”

Chances are good there’s a whole lot more cardboard in your life than there used to be. Photo: Jeramey Lende /

Another factor you probably haven’t considered is the extra ink on those boxes that go to consumers, which adds another layer to the process. “If I’m a brakes manufacturer sending my product to a Ford factory or Auto Zone, I can get a nondescript corrugated cardboard box, and they’re going to take that box and recycle that,” Lee says. “On the other hand, if I’m that same retailer and I have to mail to homes, not only am I getting a smaller box, I have to mark that box in a way that the consumer sees that box and knows it’s from me. Then, if I’m a paper processor and I’m getting this cardboard, I have to put a chemical into the pulping mixture and dilute it enough so it doesn’t affect the color of the material that comes out. That chemical at a large scale isn’t necessarily cheap; it’s an added cost.”

The Future of Paper

What does this all mean for paper recyclers? The majority of their business still comes from the commercial stream, and that has changed much less than the residential stream. Still, they must prepare for what’s on the horizon. Cohen thinks cardboard will only grow. “There’s going to be a demand for more and more paper,” he says. “Now instead of a manufacturer putting 24 of its products in one box and shipping that box to a store, they’re shipping that box to a distribution center and now there are 24 boxes that get shipped again to people’s homes.”

With all those boxes comes the challenge to reduce waste. The paper layers on that packaging has gotten thinner and thinner — Pratt Industries uses technology to make some of the thinnest papers in the world, which are just as strong as papers with 15 to 20 percent more materials. “There’s a lot of effort to right-size the box — to make sure that the box is the right size for the product being shipped and there’s not a lot of air being shipped in that box,” Cohen says.

Packaging can also get smaller for items that are being sold online vs. in stores, for a couple of reasons — the attention-grabbing exteriors that compete for shelf space aren’t needed, and there’s no worry that packages that are very small can be tucked away into pockets via shoplifting.

Lee also points out that there’s a lot of uncertainty in the market right now, given that China has announced it plans to stop importing select scrap and waste materials, including unsorted scrap paper, by the end of the year.

No one can predict exactly what innovations are on the horizon, but as these developments unfold, paper recyclers will continue to adapt, as they always have, in an effort to most efficiently take the paper we already have and turn it into something new.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

Editor’s Note: Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. ISRI is one of these partners.

Read More:
Will China’s Ban on Importing Waste Affect Your Recyclables?
Company Honored for Making Products Out of Hard-to-Recycle Waste
2016: The Recycling Industry Year in Review

By Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is based in Seattle, where recycling is just as cool as Macklemore, walking in the rain without an umbrella, and eating locally sourced food. She writes for a wide range of publications, covering everything from sustainability to fitness to travel. Read more of her work here.