Paper Recycling History: From First Century China to Modern Times

Paper Recycling History: From First Century China to Modern Times
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Earliest Documented Paper Recycling

Recycling paper isn’t a new fad that emerged from the recent green movement. There was a time when paper and paper-type products, were more scarce than gold. Paper recycling history starts all the way back during the time of the First Egyptian Dynasty, where scribes would erase old papyrus documents in order to have something to write new documents on. Although this wasn’t strictly a paper recycling technique (because the first material deemed as “paper” didn’t emerge until nearly 200 B.C.), it did essentially the same thing by allowing materials to be reused.

The first documented occurrence of paper recycling comes out of Japan in the year 1031 where a government order was issued, that made it mandatory to repulp all waste papers to make new paper.

Paper Recycling in Early America

Paper recycling began in America while it was still an English colony. In 1690 the first paper mill to use recycled materials opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The mill, owned and operated by William Rittenhouse, used old rags and cloth to produce paper materials in much the same way as it had been done since the invention of paper in China in 105. During the 1750s Benjamin Franklin was beginning to use scraps of old paper to produce new piece (one of the first instances of paper waste being used in the Americas).

19th Century Paper Recycling

The process of deinking paper was patented in the early 1800s by Englishman Matthias Koops. Although his mill went bankrupt after only three years of operation, his methods of deinking and use of wood materials to produce paper were widely accepted and ushered in a new era in papermaking, where cloth and linen were eschewed for the cheaper wood varieties.

The first instance of curbside paper recycling also appeared in the 19th century with Baltimore, Maryland offering the pick-up service starting in 1874.

Near the end of the 19th century recycling was coming into its own in both England and the United States. There were multiple “rag and bone” collectors in England that would travel the streets calling out for citizens to deposit their recyclables into their wagons. Meanwhile, in the United States in 1897 the first recycling center was erected in New York City.

Pre World War II Paper Recycling

An interesting recycling fact to note is that with the onset of World War I, there was a marked increase in paper recycling efforts. The federal government created the Waste Reclamation Service to help reduce the costs of raw materials needed for the war efforts. With the stock market crash of 1929, paper mills around the country began recycling old newspapers, documents, books and any other waste papers they could find. These waste papers were far less expensive than the wood they had been using, and in such harsh economic times any way to save money was tried. Interestingly enough, the garbage workers in Sacramento, California received 25 cent pay increases when the city began selling its scrap papers to local mills.

Post World War II Paper Recycling

As the economy recovered and the United States saw exponential growth in the 1940s and 1950s, recycling efforts fell to the wayside. In the 1970s, direct mail advertising took the country by storm and created a massive increase in the amount of waste paper. It wasn’t until mid 1987, when the garbage barge Mobro spent six months traveling up and down the east coast of North and South America looking to dump its load of waste paper, that the issue came back to the forefront.

The leading edge of the recycling movement has always been the Californian government. In 1988 the state of California resolved to purchase only paper that was at least 50% recycled content and 10% post consumer waste. Every other state in the union and the Federal government had adopted similar policies by 1993.

Current State of Paper Recycling

We have made great strides in paper recycling in the few years since widespread resurgence of “green” practices. According to Institute of Paper Science and Technology at Georgia Tech - Atlanta, Georgia, ”1993 was the first year in history in which more paper was recycled than was buried in landfills". But this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to paper recycling. The Worldwatch Institute pointed out in 2009 that, “The average web user prints 28 pages daily”. Usage like this results in 115 billion sheets of paper being used annually for personal computers.

There are ways to combat and reduce waste in both personal and business practices. Paper recycling history teaches us that the first step is to simply reduce the amount of physical paper used. Read items on screen instead of printing them out to read from hard copies. Of course this isn’t always an option. If you must print out web based materials or documentation employ a shredder or recycling box in your office or home. Bag up your recyclable papers and either have them picked up by a local recycling service (several local governments offer these for free) or make a weekly trip to the recycling center to drop them off. offers a directory of local recycling sites for paper (as well as many other recyclables). also offers a similar service. There may even be local paper recyclers that will pay you for your waste paper. This way you are not only doing the green thing for the environment, but you’re getting some green in return.


Image courtesy of Wilson Adams @