Profiles in Garbage: Office Paper

Office paper is a generic name given to many paper products used in offices and businesses, including letterhead, computer and copying paper, and file stock. These grades usually have longer fibers and are brighter than newspaper and packaging grades. Office waste paper also includes newspapers, corrugated boxes and paperboard packaging, which are not included in this profile.

Letterhead and copying paper are available in many colors.

Most office paper is made from chemically pulped paper fiber. However, some computer and writing paper is made from groundwood fiber, which is used to make newspapers.

Office paper is a subcategory of the “printing and writing” paper industry category, which also includes book and magazine paper, junk mail, brochures, etc.

Since 1960, office paper generation has increased by 6.15 million tons or 404 percent, and its MSW market share has almost doubled. Office paper recycling has increased by 3.79 million tons and the recycling rate has tripled.

This profile concentrates on office paper, the portion of printing and writing paper recycled the most. However, data for all printing and writing paper for comparison and statistical purposes are included in this report.

Office Paper Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts:


  • 7.67 million tons or 3.3% of MSW by weight.*
  • 56.25 pounds of office paper per person.*
  • 9.31 million tons in 2000 (industry data).
  • 25% of office papers are generated in homes and 75% are generated in businesses.*
  • 32.7 million tons of printing and writing paper in 2000 (industry data).
  • 234 pounds of printing and writing paper per person in 2000 (industry data).
  • Recycled:

  • 4.04 million tons for a 52.7% recycling rate.*
  • 4.37 million tons for a 46.9% recovery rate in 2000 (industry data).
  • 13.4 million tons of printing and writing paper for a 41.1% recovery rate in 2000.
  • Office paper is the most heavily recovered segment of printing and writing paper.
  • Recycled Content:

  • Office paper can range from 0% to 100% recycled content, depending on a paper mill's ability to use recycled office paper as a raw material. Laboratory tests show that recycled copier paper meets the same quality standards as virgin copier paper.
  • Composted:

  • Office paper is compostable if shredded properly. A low nitrogen content and lack of physical structure are inhibiting factors.
  • Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 3.63 million tons or 2.2% of discarded MSW by weight.*
  • Office paper is easily combustible with a per pound Btu value of 7,200, compared with 4,500 Btu to 5,000 Btus for a pound of MSW.
  • Landfill Volume:

  • 8.67 million cubic yards or 2.1% of landfilled MSW in 1997.
  • Density:

  • Landfilled office paper weighs 800 pounds per cubic yard.*
  • Unbaled office paper has a density of 375 pounds to 465 pounds per cubic yard.
  • Unbaled computer printout paper has a density of 655 pounds per cubic yard.
  • Baled office paper has a density of 700 pounds to 750 pounds per cubic yard.
  • Baled computer printout paper has a density of 1,310 pounds per cubic yard.
  • Source Reduction:

    Double-sided copying, use of the lightest basis weight stock possible for a job, e-mail and extensive use of online systems will reduce office paper usage.

    Recycling Markets:

    The primary markets for recycled office paper are mills that make tissue paper, printing and writing paper, or paperboard packaging. Export markets also are important but are subject to major fluctuations depending on the strength of Asian economies. Ten years ago, more than half of recovered office paper was exported, primarily to paper mills in Pacific Rim countries.

    End-Market Specifications:

    Office paper consists of many different types of paper, resulting in a wide range of paperstock specifications. The Institute of Scrap Recycling (ISRI) guidelines for Paperstock PS-01 include specifications for computer printout (#42); sorted white ledger (#40); sorted colored ledger (#38); sorted office paper (#37) mixed paper (#2); and soft mixed paper (#1).

    The array of paperstock grades forces office paper programs to collect a limited number of separate high-value grades, such as computer printout or white ledger or a lower-value mixed-paper grade in which fiber types and colors are mixed together.

    High-value end-markets exclude or strictly limit groundwood fibers, laser printing, colored paper, nonwater soluble glues and nonpaper items such as paper clips and rubber bands normally found in office waste. Individual mills have their own mill-specific office waste paper grades. Consequently, recyclers must consult carefully with purchasers about specifications before delivering office paper to a market.

    Chaz Miller is director of state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C. E-mail the author at: [email protected].


    American Forest and Paper Association, Washington, D.C. Website:

    “Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States, 1997 Update,” EPA, Office of Solid Waste, 1998, Washington, D.C. Website:

    “Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 1999,” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Office of Solid Waste 2001, Washington, D.C. Website:

    Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines, National Recycling Coalition, Alexandria, Va. Website:

    Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Providence, R.I. Website:

    “Scrap Specifications Circular 2001,” Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, D.C. Website:

    *1999 EPA estimates.