Profiles in Garbage: Office Paper

The office paper recycling rate has more than quadrupled since 1960.

Office paper is a generic name given to a wide variety of paper products used in offices and businesses, including writing, computer and copying paper. These grades have longer fibers and are brighter than newspaper and packaging grades. Office wastepaper also includes newspapers, corrugated boxes and paperboard packaging, which are not included in this profile.

Office paper is usually white, but can be produced in a variety of colors. Most office paper is made from chemically pulped paper fiber.

Office paper is a sub-category of the paper industry’s “printing and writing” category, which also includes books, junk mail, brochures and similar products.

From 1960 to 2000, office paper generation increased by 5.9 million tons or 388 percent. However, office paper generation has declined by 2.2 million tons, or 29 percent, in the last decade, as the use of electronic files and e-mail has spread. Office paper recycling increased by 3.7 million tons and the recycling rate more than quadrupled since 1960. Nonetheless, recycling tonnage has also started to decline as generation has decreased.

This profile concentrates on office paper because it is the most commonly recycled portion of the printing and writing paper category.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington. E-mail him at: [email protected]


Office Paper Facts*


  • 5.26 million tons, or 2.1% by weight.
  • 34 pounds per person per year.
  • 22.3 million tons of printing and writing paper in 2010 (industry data).
  • 144.3 pounds of printing and writing paper per person (industry data).


  • EPA no longer estimates an office paper recycling rate.
  • 12.7 million tons of printing and writing paper or 56.8% in 2011 (industry data).

Recycled Content:

  • 0% to 100% depending on a paper mill’s ability to use recycled office paper.


  • Compostable if shredded properly.
  • Low nitrogen content and lack of physical structure are inhibiting factors.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 1.4 million tons, or 0.9% of discarded MSW by weight in 2009.
  • 7,200 Btus per lb. (4,500 Btus to 5,000 Btus in a pound of MSW).

Landfill Volume:

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

Landfill Density:

  • Landfilled office paper weighs 800 pounds per cubic yard (lbs/cu.yd.).
  • Unbaled office paper weighs 375 to 465 lbs/cu.yd.
  • Baled office paper weighs 700 to 750 lbs/cu.yd.

Source Reduction:

  •   Double-sided copying, e-mail, extensive use of online systems.

Recycling Markets:

  • Exports, tissue mills, recycled paperboard and printing and writing paper are the primary markets.

End Market Specifications:

  • ISRI guidelines for paperstock include grades 42, computer printout; 40, sorted white ledger; 37, sorted office paper; and 36, unsorted office paper.
  • Each mill has its own requirements.
  • High value end markets are the most restrictive.
  • Consult carefully with purchasers before selling.



American Forest and Paper Association,

“Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1998 Update,” U.S. EPA. Office of Solid Waste

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2010,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste, 2011,

“Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recycling Coalition, Washington,

Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management

“Scrap Specifications Circular 2009,” Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington,

* Data is from 2010 EPA estimates, except where noted.

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