PROFILES IN Garbage: Office Paper 6381

Chaz Miller, Semi-retired, 40-year veteran of the waste and recycling industry

July 1, 1999

4 Min Read
PROFILES IN Garbage: Office Paper

Office paper is a generic name given to a wide variety of paper products used in offices and businesses, including letterhead, copy and computer paper, and file stock.

These paper grades usually have longer fibers and are brighter than newspaper and packaging grades. Waste paper from offices also includes newspaper, corrugated boxes and paperboard packaging, which are not included in this profile.

Letterhead and copy paper usually are white, but they can be produced in a variety of colors.

Most office paper is made from chemically pulped paper fiber. However, some computer and writing paper is made from groundwood fiber (the same fiber used to make newspapers). Some writing paper is made from old corrugated boxes.

Office paper is a subcategory of the paper industry's "printing and writing" category, which also includes book and magazine paper, junk mail, brochures, etc. Office paper is the most commonly recycled portion of printing and writing paper.

Office Paper Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts: Generated: * 6.7 million tons or 3.2% by weight.*

* 49.3 pounds of office paper per person.*

* 9.1 million tons in 1998 (industry data).

* 31.5 million tons of printing and writing paper in 1998 (industry data).

* 233 pounds of printing and writing paper per person in 1998 (industry data).

Recycled: * 3.2 million tons for a 47.9% recycling rate.*

* 3.8 million tons for a 41.8% recovery rate in 1998 (industry data).

* 11 million tons of printing and writing paper for a 35.1% recovery rate in 1998 (industry data).

* 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. Recent 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 a physical structure are inhibiting factors.

Incinerated or Landfilled: * 3.5 million tons or 2.3% of discarded MSW by weight.*

* Office paper is easily combustible with a per-pound British thermal unit (Btu) value of 7,200 compared with 4,500 to 5,000 Btus for a pound of MSW.

Landfill Volume: * 8.7 million cubic yards or 2.2% of landfilled MSW.*

Density: * Landfilled office paper weighs 800 pounds per cubic yard.*

* Unbaled office paper has a density of 375 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 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, using the lightest basis weight stock possible for a job, e-mail and extensive use of online systems will reduce office paper use.

Office Paper Recycling Markets: The primary markets for recycled office paper are mills that make tissue paper products, printing and writing paper, or paperboard packaging. Export markets also are important, but are subject to fluctuations depending on the strength of Asian economies. As recently as 1990, 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 types of paper, resulting in a wide range of paperstock specifications. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries' (ISRI), Washington, D.C., guidelines for paper stock PS-98 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 high-value grades such as computer printout or white ledger, or a lower-valued sorted office 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, non-water-soluble glues and non-paper items such as paper clips and rubber bands normally found in office waste. Individual mills have their own specific office waste paper grades. Consequently, recyclers must consult carefully with purchasers about specifications before delivering office paper to a market.

American Forest and Paper Association Website:

Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States:

1997 Update, 1998. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste, Washington, D.C. Website:

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

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

Scrap Specifications Circular 1998. Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, D.C. Website:

About the Author(s)

Chaz Miller

Semi-retired, 40-year veteran of the waste and recycling industry, National Waste & Recycling Association

Chaz Miller is a longtime veteran of the waste and recycling industry.

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