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Paper Recycling Is a Success Story – Lawmakers Should Recognize Its Accomplishments

By Terry Webber

July 7, 2022

Given the central importance of strong and efficient recycling systems to our collective sustainability endeavors, recycling is rightfully at the forefront of our national conversation about climate change and waste reduction. As policymakers consider proposals to promote a more circular economy and sustainable future, it is critical that they recognize the paper industry’s sustained recycling infrastructure investments and public education programs and their significant contributions to the tremendous achievements of our national paper recycling system.

Thanks to these initiatives, the overall recycling rate for paper has met or exceeded 63% every year since 2009. This robust rate has allowed the U.S. to reach a significant milestone: Today, more than 50 million tons of paper is recovered annually for recycling—totaling more than 1 billion tons over the past two decades.

Much of this success is due to the widespread availability of recycling programs. The 2021 American Forest & Paper Association Access to Recycling Study found that 94% of American households have access to paper and paperboard recycling through either curbside or drop-off programs. These community recycling programs make it easy to recycle paper products. Thanks in part to the paper industry’s efforts, 14 million more people have access to curbside recycling programs today than in 2014.

These significant achievements highlight the paper industry’s commitment to sustainability. And we are further bolstering America’s recycling success by pledging $5 billion in manufacturing infrastructure investments by 2024. These funds—totaling nearly $2.5 million per day in sustainability investments—will improve the paper industry’s capacity to use recycled fibers in our products by approximately 8 million tons, a roughly 25% increase over 2020 levels.

America’s paper recycling industry is thriving and poised to grow even more efficient in the years ahead.

However, lawmakers in some states have proposed legislation known as “extended producer responsibility,” or EPR, which could imperil this progress. EPR policies essentially shift the costs of recycling responsibilities to the manufacturers and distributors of products in an effort to boost recycling rates for difficult-to-recycle materials and their end markets. EPR policies must be carefully designed to consider the disparate recycling systems and needs of different materials. EPR could undermine paper recycling by shifting investments away from industry infrastructure to cover new regulatory costs.

Colorado is the most recent state to pass an EPR scheme. The law does not account for the paper industry’s significant investments in manufacturing capacity, utilizing recovered paper, and its commitment to recycling. More paper by weight gets recycled from municipal waste streams each year than aluminum, glass, steel, and plastic combined. Nationally, the recycling rate of cardboard—the paper material most likely to be impacted by EPR policies—is more than 91%. Last year, the paper recycling rate climbed to an impressive 68%, on par with the highest rate previously achieved. These already robust recycling rates are unlikely to be improved by new regulations.

EPR policies could also impose additional economic costs on consumers at a time of financial hardship and record inflation. Such policies amount to what is essentially a regressive tax that could hurt low-income households the most. In some states where EPR has already passed, studies estimate that monthly costs have increased for families of four between $32 and $59. Lawmakers should carefully craft legislation to recognize our industry’s leadership and not hinder continued investment in recycling. The message is loud and clear: Paper recycling is widely accessible and highly successful, and paper products already play a critical role in our collective sustainability efforts. It is important that we support a regulatory environment that recognizes and facilitates these accomplishments rather than hindering them.


Terry Webber is vice president of industry affairs at the American Forest & Paper Association.